The Ocean’s Beating Hearts

A bird's eye image of a single gray whale swimming in the open ocean.

California’s Monterey Bay seeps into my soul. It transports me to a magical world where the salty smell of the ocean and the sound of barking sea lions linger. Here, furry sea otters float on their backs in kelp forests, clutching crabs between their paws. Harbor seals and sea lions bask in the sun in lumps of gray and brown, draped over rocky outcroppings. Some topple over each other with the familiarity of a close-knit family. 

Monterey’s marine life captivates me, much like the California desert, where I worked and lived when I was a park ranger. There, I watched bighorn sheep leap down cliff faces in the searing sun and desert kit foxes (about the size of a house cat) skitter across sand dunes under starry skies. In Monterey, I connect with a very different wilderness: the ocean, which once blanketed desert landscapes in its ancient form. 

I no longer live in a remote landscape, but the urban metropolis of the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m lucky. I live car-free, can walk or bike to nearby hiking trails that boast towering redwoods, and can read while sipping a latte at an independent coffee shop with all the urban amenities at my fingertips. But I feel a loss, a nagging void, something missing. I miss wildlife, and Monterey has it in spades. 

It renews my spirits every time.  

Enacting marine multispecies connection, four tourists huddle toward a boat's bow to spot a whale spout off a bright, hilly coastline.
Whale watchers spot a spout off the coast of Monterey. Photo by author, 2022.

Today is no exception. I’m walking along Monterey’s pier toward the ship that will take me on a whale watch. Seafood restaurants and kitschy shops selling seal and otter t-shirts covered in puns like “Seal of Approval” and “You’re ‘Otter’ this World” line the walkway. Like a breath of fresh air, I look out at the dizzying blue of the Pacific Ocean as picturesque as a painting or postcard. 

“Last call for the whale watch!”  

Running towards my ship, harried and disheveled, I approach the whale watch guide, expecting a frosty greeting for my tardiness. Instead, a friendly young woman, with a blonde pageboy and beatific smile welcomes me. “You made it,” she says reassuringly.  

A group of sea lions fights for a place on a tall rocky outcropping in a marina.
Sea lions fight for a place on a rocky outcropping. Photo by author, 2022.

“Sorry,” I reply. “The scenery captured me.”  

“I get it,” she reassures me, adding “I’ve lived here for four years and am still awed by the natural beauty.” 

“Thank you, Kylie,” I say with gratitude, reading her name tag.  

As I climb onto the ship, the hum of excitement is palpable. Looking around, I notice passengers of all ages and backgrounds. I estimate around thirty people are braving this frigid winter morning in December to spot gray whales and other marine life. 

The ship’s engine rumbles and I scan choppy waves. Orange, yellow, and red kayaks drift along the shoreline and sailboats hug the horizon with their white sails aloft. Two sea lions intertwine their mocha bodies in a mass of blubber and flipper to conquer a coveted dock that can’t accommodate both. The winner raises a flipper like a prized fighter, while the other slinks back into the water, bobbing its sleek round head, barking at the king of the rock. 

“Have you ever seen a whale?”  

A woman’s voice interrupts my observing. She has short-cropped blonde hair and speaks with a French accent. “Yes, several, and it’s always thrilling,” I reply, gazing at the seemingly infinite Pacific Ocean. The woman nods, turning her attention to a screeching, blond-curled little girl. “No, Veronica,” she says emphatically, offering her daughter a slice of apple to muffle her. She looks at me smiling, “I want my seven year-old to appreciate marine life and want to protect it.”   

“You’re in the right place,” I say, smiling, heartened by the woman’s remark. 

● ●

Being in Monterey reminds me of working as a park ranger at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida’s Panhandle. It was almost twenty years ago, but it stays with me. Volunteering with marine biologists who tested devices that released sea turtles from fishing nets, I placed fifty-pound juvenile loggerhead sea turtles from tubs of salty water back into the ocean. Their leathery bodies wriggled from my hands, straining to get home. 

We are sustained by the ocean just as marine life is.

Female sea turtles return to the same beach they hatched, laying as many as 100 eggs. Using their back flippers, they dig a hole and carefully deposit the eggs, covering them with sand and then drag themselves back to the ocean. Cooler sand produces males and warmer, females. In sixty days, hatchlings bust their shells open at the same time—called a “turtle boil,” because the eggs crack like the top ejected from a pot of boiling water.

Babies, the size of a quarter, emerge. Vulnerable to predators ranging from birds to coyotes, the hatchlings are guided by the moon to move toward the ocean, but artificial light from development can disorient them. Witnessing baby sea turtles the size of pocket change ignited my passion for protecting these ancient creatures and all life the ocean sustains—including our own. 

A melodic voice returns my thoughts to the present. “Just in front of the ship are two gray whales!” our enthusiastic guide Kylie announces. As befits a tourist, I clutch my camera and pivot to the bow, trying not to cut in front of fellow whale watchers in my enthusiasm. We’re huddled together, gazing over the edge. My breath catches in my throat as I see a gray whale the size of a semi-truck emerge, covered with white splotches, water exploding from its spout. 

“Ah…!” we all say in unison. 

Gray whales can reach forty to fifty feet long and weigh up to 90,000 pounds, as much as a cargo container. Kylie explains that the white patches are barnacles and whale lice, which alone can weigh 400 pounds.

A gray whale's upper body peeks of the water in the open ocean, with the skyline and horizon behind.
A gray whale surfaces during the whale watching tour. Photo by author, 2022.

Outwardly, humans and whales don’t seem faintly similar, but like all species, we share many common experiences. Highly intelligent, whales are mammals like us and form deep, everlasting bonds with their young. Most of the whales I see in Monterey are pregnant females heading to tropical waters off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to give birth to calves.  

The calves are born in sheltered lagoons from early January to mid-February. Embarking on one of the longest migrations on the planet, mom and calf travel from protected Mexico lagoons to Arctic feeding grounds from around March to May. Gray whale moms nurse newborns for up to eight months so their calves are as strong as possible for the epic journey they will take.  

Despite sharing an affective parenting bond with us, these majestic whales and their calves face perilous obstacles caused by humans. Vessels can strike them, underwater ocean noise (such as sonar) can disorient them from crucial feeding grounds, fishing lines and other plastic pollution can entangle them.  

I wonder if instead of viewing ourselves as separate and superior to marine life, we saw their communities as intertwined with ours.

I look down at a stuffed purple octopus that the little girl Veronica is clutching, smiling up at me. 

The cute toy reminds me of another doting mom that we can’t see—the giant Pacific octopus. Reddish-orange with a pear-shaped head and eight arms, dangling like a mini skirt swaying in the water, the octopus looks otherworldly. A female octopus lays 20,000 to 80,000 tear-shaped eggs in long braids and guards them in a den, hidden from predators.  

She is a magician that can disappear from view. Skin cells filled with sacs of red, yellow, brown, and black pigments enable an octopus to put on different costumes. Squeezing or stretching these sacs like tubes of paint, the octopus becomes an artist that can color itself to blend into the background, lying in wait for prey and hidden from predators. Her color may even reflect her mood. She is not only sentient, but also highly intelligent even on human scales—she can open jars and solve puzzles in captivity. In the months when she protects her eggs, the octopus mother will stop eating and often dies before her babies are even born

● ●

The sound of someone mangling their disposable water bottle interrupts my train of thought, making me think of how human plastic pollution is devastating marine life. Scientists estimate that over 171 trillion pieces of plastic pollute the ocean. Thanks to media campaigns, the devastating effects of plastic on sentient octopuses, whales, sea turtles, sharks, and other species have been well-documented. Plastics entangle these animals, leading to an agonizing death. Sea turtles would mistake plastic bags floating in the water for jellyfish, one of the main staples of their diet, and often die from ingesting them. Sea birds that consume plastic sometimes have a false sense of fullness, which causes them to starve to death.  

Two seals, one large brown and one small white spotted, swim together in calm ocean water.
Two seals swim in the calm waters of Monterey Bay. Photo by author, 2022.

Research in recent years suggests that marine species aren’t alone in mistakenly ingesting plastic. Microplastics are in the water humans drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. The knowledge of microplastics’ compromising health effects is only just beginning to spread. 

Anthropogenic climate change is also pummeling both human and marine life. Warming oceans are a death knell for an animal that depends on a particular body temperature to survive. Other creatures must migrate to find colder waters and different habitats as a warming ocean disrupts their food supply.  

In the case of sea turtles, warming sand is leading to more female offspring than male. Scientists are uncertain how the skewed ratio of females to males will affect sea turtle populations long-term. A lesser-known issue is that climate change also alters the chemistry of the water, causing acidification that can sicken and kill marine life.  

For the gray whales I watch, melting sea ice in the Arctic leads to other marine life entering that area and competing for crustaceans, fish, and plankton, essential food sources for gray whales. As a result, gray whales may stay in Arctic waters longer in search of food, a lack of which affects their ability to migrate. 

Melting sea ice also threatens humans on land. Scientists predict that as climate change intensifies and sea levels continue to rise, low-lying states such as Florida and coastal cities such as Boston and New York could be underwater in the future

● ●

As I think about how climate change affects our well-being and that of marine life, our guide Kylie speaks: 

So little is known about our deep sea and life there, but places like Monterey Bay serve as ocean laboratories. A deep submarine canyon located close to shore enables oceanographers in Monterey Bay to use special underwater vehicles to gather data about the deep sea, largely unmapped and unknown. 

Listening to Kylie, I wonder if, instead of viewing ourselves as separate from and superior to marine life, we saw their communities as intertwined with ours. We are connected to the ocean before we are born and it sustains us throughout our lives. The oceans provide at least fifty percent of the planet’s oxygen, mostly from plankton—some so microscopic that they’re invisible to the human eye. This oxygen also sustains marine plants and animals. 

As Rachel Carson wrote: “And as life began in the sea, so each of us begins his identical life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb.” 

● ●

I glance over at the energetic girl, Veronica, who is now peaceful. She sits quietly next to her mom, sucking a thumb, her purple octopus resting in her lap.  

“What a special place,” her mother says, placing a hand on Veronica’s shoulder.  

“Yes,” I reply.  

Veronica looks up at me and smiles. “I love whales. I don’t want to go home,” she tells me. Her mom runs her fingers through her blond curls.  

“Maybe she’ll become a marine biologist,” I say, smiling.  

“I would love that,” her mom replies, as we watch the ship motor toward the dock. 

Two gray whales swimming in the open ocean with the skyline and horizon behind. One tail is visible above the water and one does a large spout.
Two more gray whales spotted on the tour. Photo by author, 2022.

Kylie walks over smiling, thanking us for joining the whale watch. “You were fantastic!” I say.  

“Thank you,” she replies, blushing, clearly pleased with the compliment. “Ocean conservation is my passion. I’m pursuing my master’s degree in marine biology,” she adds. “I think if people can form a bond to marine life—or any type of wildlife for that matter—and see their well-being as interconnected to our own, they will care about animals and want to protect them. We need that and so do they.” 

Kylie’s statement reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s observations: humans encountering species across differences both vast and small can help build empathy. We are sustained by the ocean just as marine life is, and we share many of the same experiences—from life-building emotional moments to struggles with Earth’s human-led degradation

Veronica grabs Kylie’s hand and shakes her stuffed octopus in excitement. “What do whales eat?” she asks.   

I smile—there’s hope. 

An orange sun setting behind a tree line and fading into clouds, reflected onto a wet beach.
Sunset at a Monterey beach. Photo by author, 2022.

As the ship pulls into the dock, I notice the sea lion I saw earlier has left its prized spot. I hear barking in the distance, so I know the sea lions and harbor seals aren’t far away. Slowly gathering my belongings, I’m the last passenger to step off the ship. I gaze back at the undulating Pacific Ocean and think of all the beating hearts traveling underwater. I’m in no hurry to leave.  

 “Safe journeys,” I whisper.  

Featured image: A lone gray whale photographed off the Oregon coast. Photo by Dan Meyers, 2019.

For 18 years, Hilary Clark worked as a park ranger at remote desert outposts, national seashores, and other areas across the country. In these diverse landscapes, she witnessed nature’s fragility. She also saw the best and worst of humanity. While some park visitors collected trash they did not leave, others desecrated cultural sites and poached wildlife. These experiences further fueled her passion for conservation. Writing is an outlet to share her stories and, perhaps, inspire others to advocate for protecting the other living things with which we share the planet. Contact.