MOSS LANDING - Spectators crowded the railings of two whale-watching boats about 200 yards from shore. A handful of kayakers paddled close by. More watchers lined the beach to catch the show.
The humpback whales feeding and cavorting just outside the Moss Landing Harbor on Friday didn't disappoint: Several whales, including calves, appeared, slapping fins, waving tails and leaping from the water to grab huge gulps of water and anchovies in what's known as lunge-feeding.
The excitement surrounding the sightings of the large cetaceans is driving a booming whale-watching business around the Monterey Bay.
"It's not only the tourists," said Kim Solano, owner of the Haute Enchilada Cafe in Moss Landing. "It's bringing the locals out like crazy, people who have never gone out on a whale-watching excursion before."
Case in point: Brenda Stevens of Marina. She's a regular on the Moss Landing shoreline. Friday, Stevens, a camera with a long lens hanging from her neck, stood on the beach after a second trip out on the water in a week.
"We saw them on the shore, and there looked like so many, I decided to take a cruise," said Stevens, turning on her camera display to share a close-up shot of whale's head peeking above the surface.
Whales are always a big draw to the region.
Jessica Cibin, a 28-year-old traveler from Switzerland, made a pit stop in Monterey solely to see whales.
"Sure the (Monterey Bay) Aquarium is nice, but I want to see action and not animals squeezed into a container," Cibin said.
At Chris' Fishing Trips on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, owner Chris Arcoleo said he's booked through February 2015, and gets "email after email at all times of the day" from tourists trying to reserve a trip.
Daniel Jozic from Croatia said the No. 1 reason for his trip to California was the whales. After paying $37 for a three-hour tour, he said his "travels were complete with some whale sightings."
A boatload of business
But this year is different, at least in Moss Landing.
Giancarlo Thomae, a biologist with Sanctuary Cruises, said he's not seen anything like it since he joined the tour company five years ago. Sanctuary has been running up to four trips a day from its Moss Landing base, he said.
"The last month has been phenomenal," Thomae said. "We have consistently had about 15 to 20 whales, including friendly, playful mother and calf pairs within a half-mile radius of the Moss Landing Harbor. Some of these whales have even been feeding in the harbor. Business has been really great for all the whale-watching boats on the bay."
Based on the weather, Thomae predicts the show will continue for a while. He said the wind from the northwest is picking up a little after a monthlong southern flow that's brought "psychedelic sunsets" and warm, humid days. As the northwest wind gains strength, it encourages an upwelling of nutrients from deeper waters, he said. That brings the anchovies to feed, and the anchovies attract the humpbacks.
Thomae is planning to offer kayak trips to see the whales, as well. Nearby, Monterey Bay Kayak and Kayak Connection also have added guided tours while the whales are in town.
At Blue Ocean Whale Watching in Moss Landing, Kate Cummings said the company ran two trips Friday and planned four more each day during the weekend.
"We've been getting a rush of business lately because of all the news coverage of the whales in front of Moss Landing, and just people standing on the beach and seeing our boat," Cummings said. "It's an owner-operated business, just me, the naturalist and the captain, so we're pretty swamped, but it's definitely a good thing, very busy and very fun."
There's nothing unusual about humpbacks in the Monterey Bay at this time of year, but generally they feed farther from shore, said Ken Stagnaro of Santa Cruz Whale Watching. As they've come closer in during the past three or four years, they've caught the public's attention and media's picked up on the story, and that's been good for business, he said.
Though Stagnaro said business at Stagnaro Charters was a little more brisk last year, when blue whales were around as well, he's not complaining.
"Boats are selling out every trip where before we'd sell out on weekends," he said. "There's not many places where you can go out 10, 20, 30 minutes, at most an hour, and see what we're seeing."
How much impact the whale-watching frenzy is having on related businesses is hard to say.
Santa Cruz resident Steve Guisinger, who markets his photographs under the name, Steve Birdo, recently joined friends Matt Walker and Dave Nelson to establish NRB Photography. The whale photographs posted on their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/nrbphoto, are driving traffic to the site, promoting whale-watching and maybe helping the fledgling business build a reputation, Guisinger said.
In Moss Landing, where restaurants and shops cater to the tourist trade, business owners said it's been a busier than normal season. But they said it's not only the whales, the weather has been spectacular as well.
At popular Phil's Fish Market on Sandholdt Road, owner Phil DiGirolamo said he's always busy at this time of year.
"I can't say we've seen a major increase, but we're busy," he said.
DiGirolamo is doing his part to promote the whales. He has a webcam -- http://philsfishmarket.com/web_cam.html -- trained on the water, and its images feed his website and monitors in the restaurant. He gets as excited about seeing whales breaching yards from the shore as anyone.
"You know, it's like Sea World out there, but it's the real thing," he said.
Renee Balducci, owner of an art and handicraft shop called Driftwood on Moss Landing Drive, said there's definitely been more foot traffic. But that's not necessarily translated to more sales. People tend to be a "glassy-eyed" and sunburned by the time they come off a whale tour, and maybe not in shopping mode, she said.
But in the long run, she thinks the whales will be good for the town and its shops and restaurants because the publicity is bringing new visitors.
"They're coming out to see the whales," Balducci said. "They're seeing there are so many little gems here."
Monterey Herald reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this story.