Whale of a Day

Whale of a Day

I’ve mentioned it here before, but when I was a kid I was obsessed with whales. I had little books about marine mammals, with profiles on every type of whale and dolphin. Bottlenose dolphins were my favorite, and the white speckled dolphins were my least favorite (which seems dumb now, because those sound super pretty and I would like to see one).

In the whale world, I very much preferred tooth over baleen whales. Humpbacks were okay, but I didn’t like the fact that barnacles grew on them because that made them seem “ugly.” Same thing for Nothern Right Whales – their clusters of barnacles and slow movement didn’t hold them in any kind of ethereal light for my younger self. In fact, Right Whales get their name for being the “right kind of whale to kill” since they are so slow and easy to hunt down. Orca whales were my favorite, which was only slightly due to the fact that I watched Free Willy (and listened to the soundtrack) more times than I will admit in public.

I loved whales so much that Wyland became my favorite artist. He was pretty famous in the 90’s for his “Whaling Walls” where he airbrushed giant marine life on the sides of buildings. On a trip to Key West as a kid, my parents took me to one of his studios where I drooled over expensive bronze sculptures of humpbacks and dolphins. They got me an art book of his work (lord I wish I still had this!), and I spent hours slowly going through the airbrushed art in exotic places like California and Japan. Of course these days California is a lot less exotic, and I’ve even been able to see some of these whaling walls in person in recent years.

The whales featured in the artwork above are Grey Whales, a baleen whale with different sub-groups in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In California, the Grey Whale is fairly abundant with between 20,000-22,000 individuals migrating off the coast of California to Mexico in the winter months.

For all the years I’ve loved whales, I’ve never actually been whale watching. This is one of my biggest regrets about my time in Massachusetts, not having taken advantage of the easy access to whales off of the tip of Cape Cod. So when my friend and I were planning our day trying to figure out what to do in San Diego, my eyes absolutely lit up when she mentioned whale watching.

We got our tickets, but I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. The previous time my friend had been whale watching out of San Diego, she said it was bitter cold with a super rocky sea. Half the group felt nauseous the whole time from the swell, which tells you how awesome of a person she is to readily agree to head out on the boat again with me. We needn’t have worried though, because the weather was stellar.

The deep navy sea was flat as can be, and the sun was shining down on us in the crowded boat. I wasn’t sure what kind of marine life we would see, but at least the conditions were optimal for our roughly four hour excursion into the Pacific.

For a while we just got out of the harbor, but it wasn’t long before a voice over the intercom said that some gray whales were in our vicinity. On these cruises, the boats are not allowed to drive right up next to the whales. Representatives from the Natural History Museum are on board in part to answer questions about the wildlife, and I think in part to make sure the captain follows edicts to protect the marine animals.

At first looking for the whales involved squinting out into far off blue patches of water, but eventually they came into view.

I’ll be honest and say that picture wise, these aren’t going to be all that impressive. I had in my mind that whales routinely leap, sky hop and flap their tails around all the time. The truth is a little less exciting… whales typically swim.

When gray whales curve their spine above the water there is a chance they’ll flip their tale out for a deep dive, but that never happened that I witnessed. Instead I got lots of pictures of the large whales slicing in and out of the water, creating little rainbows with their spouts. It wasn’t thrilling like seeing orcas jump through hoops at Sea World (bleck), but it was relaxing and natural.

After following the gray whales for a while, we stopped by an area with a ton of fish. Sea lions, pelicans and dolphins were feeding in the swarm and there was active wildlife everywhere.

At one point a little girl exclaimed, “IT’S THE WORLD OF DOLPHINS!” and she couldn’t have been more accurate. Everyone on the boat was giggling and grinning about all the sea creatures. They were fantastic.

Before we head in, we got a few glimpses of a Humpback whale. He was on his own, since it’s not a perfect time of year for Humpbacks in San Diego. He was also incredibly boring. It’s not just me who thought so… the announcer even said, “This is the most boring Humpback whale I’ve ever seen.” I got a few pictures of him, but it honestly looks like a gray spec in navy water since we weren’t very up close.

My experience whale watching is different than I thought it would be. I thought the whales would be closer and doing more. That statement might lead you to think that I was disappointed with my experience, but the truth is far from it.

Instead, I realized it doesn’t take any dynamic actions to make whales exciting to me. Just seeing them in the wild, swimming happily to Mexico, was enough. As a lifelong marine and animal lover, seeing something so large and almost Jurassic in the wild was thrilling. I got off that boat feeling happy about the state of the world and my place in it, even if for that day it was just about looking for giant silver beasts in a calm, sunny sea.

13 thoughts on “Whale of a Day

  1. I went whale watching when visiting my daughter who lived in Monterey last year (the little stinker has since moved and I’m not sure if I forgive her yet). Perhaps it was the horrible weather but our whales were leaping and breaching straight up and acting like they were auditioning for a Pacific Life commercial! As awesome as the whales were, the huge waves, rain and wind for us humans was a bit much. I don’t think there was one person who didn’t feed the fish. Frankly, I thought they were going to say we couldn’t go out because the weather was so bad, but nope. Guess they don’t mind washing vomit off their rails. Glad you enjoyed a more serene experience!

  2. Great pictures – I’ve never been whale watching but it sounds like a lovely time!! It’s funny how our expectations and perceptions of something like that can be warped a bit beyond reality – glad it was still a great experience tho!!

  3. Damn girl, I’m bummed for you that you missed whale watching off of PTown in the Cape. I did it once and it was a super cool experience. The humpback whales were super active and curious about the boat and the people on it. I swear they wanted to put on a show!

    All the more reason to come to Massachusetts again – you can visit me and Crim (whose nickname oddly enough is Sea Creature)

  4. We see orcas in front of our house sometimes and they do seem to generally be a little more active than the greys and humpbacks. That being said, with the orcas active seems to often = hunting. They were chasing a giant school of dolphins last week, and I’m not sure how I feel about that…I am a dolphin fan, but it was pretty impressive 🙂 If you search on youtube there was a news video last summer/fall showing a seal hiding in a persons boat while the orcas were super up close and personal. That was also very near our house and made me quite nervous to swim! Apparently there are resident orcas here who are less aggressive/eat fish, but I don’t know how you tell them from the ‘mean’ transient ones! Anyway, sorry to post the world longest comment – I’m fascinated by them, as you can tell!

    1. That’s SO COOL that you can see them from your house! Not a long comment at all, but a fascinating one. I either read or watched in a documentary that there have been no reported attacks of an orca hurting a human in the wild. I’m not sure if that’s 100% true, but I’d be interested in having it fact checked.

  5. Whales are awesome. In fourth grade we spent a chunk of time devoted entirely to whales. We even had a big presentation on our own assigned whales that our parents came to. It was a big deal. Probably a New England thing huh?
    I’ve never been whale watching either, oddly enough. But we go out fishing sometimes and I’ve seen many dolphins, which seem to be more lively and exciting than whales.
    I’m so glad you finally got to do this! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Whale watching is definitely on the bucket list. How cool you got a closeup look out on the water!

    Sightings of whales traveling down the coast are fairly common during the winter here, but I totally lucked out once and saw some spouting and cavorting while guiding a trail ride on the beach. Super exciting 😀

  7. I have never been whale watching, but have seen pods of dolphins joyfully leaping around (boat trip to Catalina Island). One day in Laguna Beach I was sitting on a bench by the beach with a friend and her mom (mom was visiting from WA). We saw a shot of water rise straight into the air and we all kind of looked at each other with huge eyes. A second later the back of a whale appeared along the surface. There was a guy on a paddle board and from my vantage point it looked like he was 10 feet from the whale. I’m sure it was much further away, but I remember thinking, “Glad I’m not that guy or I would freak out!” But it was glorious to see the whale even though it was only a fraction of its body. I can see why you had a great time, good weather, good friend and happy aquatic life! Great post!

  8. We went whale watching when we were in Alaska several years ago… incredible, majestic creatures. I’m so glad you got to see them in the wild!

  9. Having lived on the CA coast for the past 7 years, I have driven by so many “Whale Watching Tour” signs, but have never actually done it. How cool that you got such a beautiful day and saw so much marine life!

  10. Glad you had such a super experience! I went on a dedicated whale-watching trip off of Maui while on my honeymoon, but it wasn’t quite time for them to be around yet (early December) so we didn’t see any. Fortunately, when I went back to HI another time I was able to see them right from the beach. I’d still like to do a boat trip and get a bit closer. Absolutely astounding creatures and I certainly understand your childhood obsession!

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