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.