Monterey – The History from Fisherman’s Wharf to Lover’s Point

categories: Central Coast

Fisherman’s Wharf

When you tour Monterey today the beautiful scenery belies a more troubled history of environmental management. Start your tour at the historic Fisherman’s Wharf. Fisherman’s Wharf is a great place to get a walk-away shrimp cocktail, a good fish dinner, or a souvenir sweatshirt but it was originally a commercial wharf until overfishing decimated both the local fish population and the local fishing industry.

In the 1930s Monterey was better known for its fishing than for its tourism. The big debate in that decade was what could be done about the terrible smell produced by the processing of fish, particularly sardines, in the local canneries. While many cannery owners promised to help with the problem, George Harper of the Monterey Canning Company was quoted in the Monterey Peninsula Herald in January of 1935 saying, “Nobody has died of fish odor yet, in fact, it’s one of the healthiest things we have!”

Today Fisherman’s Wharf is also a great place for a whale-watching trip to see the California Grey and Humpback whales. Nearby you can find Monterey’s Old Whaling Station Adobe which was the home to Portuguese whalers in the 1850s who cut up whales on the local beaches and rendered them for their precious whale oil. In that first year, they killed 24 whales of various types. In 1857 it is estimated that there were 15,000 California Grey whales but by 1946 when the International Whaling Commission was formed the species was near extinction.

Monterey / Pacifc Grove coast

Monterey Bay Coastal Trail

There is a wonderful biking/walking path that runs along the coast between Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row and extends on to Lover’s Point in nearby Pacific Grove. Of course, this was not always a bike path but was the tracks for the Southern Pacific trains to pick up cases of sardines from the canneries in Cannery Row to shipment in the east. In 1945, when John Steinbeck wrote his novel that made Cannery Row famous it was still busy if no longer thriving.

Cannery Row

Steinbeck described the area in the novel’s opening paragraph: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants, and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”

Resources – Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

Cannery Row is better known today for restaurants and high-end hotels than for honkytonks and whore houses. The crown jewel of Cannery Row is the Monterey Bay Aquarium which opened in 1984, nearly 30 years after the sardines were fished out. The aquarium is located in the old Portola Cannery. What once was a building dedicated to the processing of fish became a facility for studying and appreciating them. The Aquarium also produces a guide to eating “super green” seafood which is harvested in a sustainable fashion.

In 1925, Knut Hovden, builder of Hovden’s Cannery, proposed a local aquarium stating: “The reason for having an aquarium…is because of the immense abundance of marine life and fish that are to be found in the Monterey Bay. …The availability of clean, clear saltwater at all times in the year would enable this museum to exhibit the natural resources of the Bay in their original settings more exactly than in any other aquarium on the coast or anywhere else.”


Marine Sanctuary

Congress came to a similar conclusion in 1992 when it established the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary which is a Federally protected marine area composing 5,322 square miles off the coast of Monterey. The Monterey Bay which has an oceanic trench deeper than the Grand Canyon supports one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world.

Further on the bike path towards Lover’s Point is the Hopkins Marine Station which is the marine laboratory of Stanford University. The facility is located on the site of an older Chinese fishing village. In 1879 Robert Luis Stevenson penned these words about the settlement: “And yet the boats that ride in the haven are of strange outlandish design; and, if you walk into the hamlet, you will behold costumes and faces and hear a tongue that are unfamiliar to the memory. The joss-stick burns… and a man guiding his upright pencil from right to left across the sheet, writes home the news of Monterey to the Celestial Empire.” In 1906 the fishing village “mysteriously” burned to the ground and was subsequently looted by local residents

Lover’s Point

While the marine station is not open to the public it is one of the best spots to see the harbor seals which inhabit a beach on the land belonging to the station. Harbor seals, sea otters, and California sea lions can all be spotted in the Monterey Bay area. Sea lions can most easily be seen at Fisherman’s wharf and sea otters are easiest to see in the waters between Cannery Row and Lover’s Point.

Lover's Point at Pacific Grove

Lover’s Point is probably the most fitting end to this historic tour of the Monterey shores as it is the first location for the Hopkins Seaside Marine Lab in 1892. This was the first spot where the idea came to study the local marine life and not just exploit it. Glass bottom boats showed tourists the local sea life from the beach at Lover’s Point at least as long ago as 1907. The glass bottom boats are gone but the beach and the sea and the sea life still beckon in this the finest bay on the coast of California.

Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won numerous awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine. He move to California in 1964.

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