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Whale of a Good Time

BY BARBARA VAN DRIEL
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Whale-watching season is once again upon us. With so many experiences today being of a plugged-in, virtual type, this is one real-life, real-time adventure that captures the drama of power along with the elegance of movement. Who can deny the awe-inspiring grace and beauty of our largest mammalian fellow creatures? 

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SOME SWELL WHALE FACTS & TERMS

Average length of an adult gray whale: 46 feet; weight can be up to 70,000 pounds.

Average length of a newborn gray whale (calf): 16 feet; weighs approximately 1,500 pounds.

A newborn calf consumes 50 gallons of mother’s milk per day (consists of more than 50% fat).

The average lifespan of the gray whale is 40 to 60 years.

The average speed of a gray whale is about five miles per hour.

Barnacles attach themselves to whales and can grow to be the size of an adult human palm.

Blow or Spout: the column of air that is visible (up to 15 feet high) when a whale exhales. 

Fluke: average width of a gray whale’s fan-shaped tail is 12 feet.

Breaching: when a whale hurls itself out of the water and dives back in with a dramatic splash.

Spyhopping: when a whale (or dolphin) partially rises out of the water and holds a vertical position.

Fortunately, San Diegans are treated annually to the round-trip migration of gray whales. Each December, tens of thousands of these remarkable salt-water titans grace our waters, just a few miles off the coast, as they travel south from Alaska on their way to Baja California in order to rear their young. Come April, these noble giants once again travel north for colder waters. There are a number of fun ways to view whales: everything from an individual kayak to a mid-size boat to a large vessel. Even from shore!

Everyday California and HBK Adventure Tours (Hike Bike Kayak/HBK) offer daily excursions by kayak that allow the adventurer to get up close and personal. We’re talking within feet from the whales. And you can bet you’ll get wet if you go by kayak. Everyday California has 2-hour tours December 1 through March 1 at 9:00 am, 11:30 am and 2:00 pm; HBK offers an approximately 2.5-hour tour seven days a week from December through late February (call for specific tour times). These tours venture out approximately a half mile to three-quarters of a mile off La Jolla shore, where the kayaker navigates along the underwater canyon that is part of the migration path of the whales. Of course, it’s always important to keep in mind that kayak tours are based on weather conditions.

For small parties, up to six guests, a unique adventure is going by catamaran to see the whales. Fun Cat Sailing Catamaran Adventures features daily excursions December 20 through March 15. Departing at 1:30 pm, this more personalized way of whale watching is operated by a Coast Guard-certified captain and seasoned crew. You can expect to experience a breathtaking sunset as an added bonus to this 3.5-hour tour. If you want to jump aboard a bit larger vessel, through April 15, H&M Landing is offering daily 3-hour expeditions at 10:00 am (Monday through Thursday), and 9:00 am, 10:00 am and 1:30 pm (Friday through Sunday).

Celebrating its 17th year in partnership with Birch Aquarium at Scripps, Flagship Cruises & Events has two excursions daily on their two-story yacht, the Marietta. Departing at 9:30 am and 1:30 pm, December 19 through April 16, this 3.5-hour educational whale-watching tour is conducted by Birch Aquarium naturalists. With backgrounds in biology and marine science, these highly educated instructors provide general information on whales, things to look for in order to spot whales, interesting tidbits about whale behavior, and examples of whale food. Although gray whales are the “featured guests” of each tour, sea lions, dolphins, and other whale species (fin and humpback) often make appearances on the open waters. As the whales migrate south, which occurs in December, the Marietta ventures out three to five miles from the coast; as the whales begin to travel back north in spring, the ship sails out nine to 12 miles in order to follow the return migration path of the whales. Flagship Cruises & Events even offers a “Whale Tail Guarantee”: every visitor is “guaranteed to see whales or your next trip is free.” All in all, pretty impressive! 

And then there’s a captivating tour opportunity for the landlubber: the western overlooks of Cabrillo National Monument, from which you can witness the annual winter journey of the gray whales. Old Point Loma Lighthouse also offers one of the best vantage points for viewing. The national park is hosting “Whale Tales” on Saturday, January 14, 2017, from 12 noon to 1:30 pm, at Cabrillo Auditorium. This presentation is free and open to all ages.

Words can’t truly capture the thrill of seeing such magnificent creatures in their natural environment. So take advantage of the numerous whale-watching adventure tours available in the San Diego area. Grab your waterproof camera, a pair of binoculars, and be on the lookout for flukes!

Fun Cat Sailing Catamaran Adventures
955 Harbor Island Drive
San Diego, CA 92101
619.866.7245 | sailfuncat.com

Everyday California
2243 Avenida de la Playa
La Jolla, CA 92037
858.454.6195 | adventure.everydaycalifornia.com

HBK Adventure Tours
2222 Avenida de la Playa
La Jolla, CA 92037
858.551.9510 | hikebikekayak.com

H&M Landing
2803 Emerson Street
San Diego, CA 92106
619.222.1144 | whalewatchingathmlanding.com

Flagship Cruises & Events
1050 North Harbor Drive
San Diego, CA 92101
619.234.4111 | flagshipsd.com

Birch Aquarium at Scripps
2300 Expedition Way
La Jolla, CA 92037
858.534.3474 | aquarium.ucsd.edu