On April 15th this year I went whale watching for the first time. It was also my first visit to Monterey Bay, somewhere I’d longed to go for years and years. It lived up to my expectations and then some – although there were no orcas to be seen, I got to see several feeding humpback whales, an enormous pod of Risso’s dolphins, and a small but curious pod of long-beaked common dolphins. The latter is a species that can also be seen in my home waters in the southwest of England, but of course throughout my life it was always a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so I was ecstatic to finally see them. They’re so small and quick and utterly charming; the pod made a beeline for the bow of the boat where I was crouching and were so close my lens was too long to get a good photo! Watching them erupt from the water (which in itself is so difficult to photograph) was so fantastic that I knew I had to paint it.
One of the places I was determined to visit during our (utterly fantastic) trip west this month was the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. I’m so glad we did – it’s an incredible place and it was wonderful to see so many people engaged with a variety of science-based topics. Naturally I was drawn to the Steinhart Aquarium, but it was also a very pleasant surprise for me to see my first real orca skeleton up close. O319 was a young male offshore orca that stranded at Point Reyes National Seashore in November 2011 and, after a lengthy collection process (that you can read about in detail here), went on display at the Academy in 2013. Seeing this specimen up close was a real treat for me; being able to see his worn teeth (which are casts in the skeleton itself – the originals were made available for research) from a primary diet of sharks was fascinating. It’s also easy to see the broken rib that possibly led to his death.
The Academy’s Naturalist Center is unlike anything I’ve seen at any other museum. Here, visitors of all ages can actually get their hands on real and replica specimens for closer examination. What an awesome way to get people involved! My built-in “orcadar” immediately led me towards the orca skull, a life-size recreation from Bone Clones. It’s this that I used as a reference for some quick sketches, something I’d love to do more of.