Keep your eyes open on San Diego whale-watching voyages

12/30/2012 12:00 AM

12/31/2012 10:41 AM

SAN DIEGO – Seven miles offshore, well out of sight of the city skyline and beyond both the kelp line and stray lobster buoys, Capt. Nick Kriesel cuts the engine of the large Hornblower Cruises excursion boat he is piloting.

Now we drift. Now we wait.

The water is calm, a gentle, lulling roll. Its color shades to a darker blue this morning. A buffeting wind has blown away the marine layer, yet kept whitecaps to a minimum. No one has yet touched the seasickness bags discreetly placed in a basket by the railing.

We are about halfway into the 3 1/2-hour Hornblower whale-watching cruise, one of many such expeditions voyeuristically dedicated to sneaking peeks of these majestic marine mammals.

San Diego is one of the prime whale-watching spots along the California coast. Six years after commercial hunting of grays was banned in 1949, San Diego became the first area to offer these types of cruises as an eco-tourism option.

So far today, we have spotted only a lone finback whale – no migratory grays – just off the starboard bow (2 o'clock, Capt. Nick calls it), catching sight of a single spout and breach before it plunged fathoms below.

Then again, it is early in the whale-watching season, so expectations are dampened. The gray whales are just now making their yearly 6,000- mile commute from Arctic waters to their calving lagoons in the Sea of Cortez on the east side of Baja California. Come January and February, gray whale traffic will be heavy heading south, and the wait time between breachings minimal. Capt. Nick says that during peak whale time it's a veritable traffic jam of grays.

But today, five minutes pass and still no action.

The 40 tourists who plunked down $37 to ogle these SUVs of the sea remain remarkably patient. Binoculars and handheld video cameras poised, they scan the distant whitecaps, look for any sudden change of current. We know that at least one whale, that shy finback that breached ever so briefly, is out there; we just need to wait it out.

"OK, folks, we're about eight minutes since the last sighting," Capt. Nick announces over the PA system. "It's a matter of guessing where they'll pop up. We're not Sea World. I can't just blow my whistle for Shamu to surface."

Some in the crowd chuckle. Some just keep staring to the distant horizon, either scoping out whales or trying to stave off seasickness. A few repair to the port beam to munch on nachos and slurp sodas.

Hovering just outside the wheelhouse, pacing the bridge while peering through binoculars, is Antonio Ramirez. He is a National Geographic photographer and a videographer for the Discovery Channel ("I did 'Shark Week,' " he says) who helps Hornblower periodically as a whale spotter.

"Everything is timing," Ramirez says. "I have a direct satellite system with (the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration) so I get to know where the whales are coming. Last time I checked with Monterey, there were more than 100 whales spotted and coming south. By January, they should be here. But we'd be lucky if we saw grays this early."

What we have seen, oh so briefly on this morning, is that finback whale. Ramirez calls them "resident whales." These beasts, 70 feet long and 70 tons, and able to swim up to 14 miles per hour, can be elusive. They can hold their breath up to 45 minutes between breaches, so patience is an ally, even if the cruise time is not.

"It's hit or miss this early," Ramirez says. "Saturday I spotted four finbacks and even a humpback. That one breached 21 times. Then (Sunday), all we saw was a megapod of dolphins, about 8,000. But no whales. That's a chance you take."

Tell that to Spider and Jeff Fish, husband-and-wife tourists from Estes Park, Colo. Spider had been on that Sunday excursion that yielded nary a single whale sighting, but she says Hornblower was nice enough to give her a free pass to try again this morning. This time, she brought along Jeff, who is looking a little peaked.

"I've never seen one," he says. "And I have a little problem with rolling motion. I took some Bonine ( motion sickness tablets). Hope it helps."

Just then, Spider squeals.

"Oh my God, look!" she says, pointing toward 11 o'clock. "It's spouting."

Two streams, actually. We have a pair performing synchronized spouting.

Antonio waves at Capt. Nick, barks a single word: "Finback."

Capt. Nick flips the PA switch.

"OK, folks, look over at 11 o'clock. There's a breach. Look at the small dorsal fin in the back. That's pretty good-sized adult finback. Looks like we got a smaller one out there, too."

The engine rumbles to life, and Capt. Nick slowly steers us a bit closer.

"This is how whale watching works, folks," he says. "It's important we use a slow approach. We don't want to get too close too quick because they'll get spooked. The fin is kind of a big-risk, big-reward type of whale to watch because they are not afraid of this boat. They'll circle around and come right up next to us sometimes. We'll just circle and wait and "

A roar comes up from the Hornblower's stern. Somebody actually says "Thar she blows," not at all ironically. In less than five minutes, the finback whale apparently has traveled well north of the boat, at 5 o'clock.

Capt. Nick revs the engine and reverses course less than a minute before settling in neutral.

"These are tough whales to track," he tells the passengers. "They can go so fast and stay down so long. And it's not good practice to try to run down a whale and get too close."

And so, after that brief flurry of activity, the wait resumes.

During lulls, the yellow-jacketed San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers make the rounds and impart whale facts. Docent Barbara Whyte, sporting a glittering pair of gold whale earrings, is a veritable whale Wikipedia. She tells a group of four sitting at a table astern that the migratory grays travel 6,000 miles each way, that they don't eat on the trip down, that they breach more often than other types of whales.

"Now, the blue whale, which we won't see today, is the largest, about 100-feet long," she adds. "The heart on a blue whale is as big as a Volkswagen. A man could stand (inside) one of its arteries."

Passenger Hal Hufford, vacationing from Tucson, Ariz., raises his hand for a question – or maybe just a statement.

"I heard the way they breed is that the male gets underneath the female and another male breeds her," he says.

Whyte, initially a bit flustered by this query about threesome cetacean sex, quickly recovers: "Well, you know, I've never heard that, but it could very well be the way they do that sort of thing. If you are going to be here in town, go to our natural history museum and you can see skeletons of whales and body parts, too, if you're interested in that end of things."

The real action, Whyte says, is to travel to Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California and actually pet gray whales from small boats. She calls it "magical," but is quick to add that our current trip is pretty special, too.

Nearly 10 minutes have passed since our coy finbacks have surfaced. The really deep water, where more "resident" finbacks tend to gather, is still two miles out, but Capt. Nick doesn't have time to move forward. He needs to dock back in San Diego harbor by 1 p.m. for the afternoon excursion.

So we drift again.

Ramirez puts down his binoculars briefly and tries to reassure tourists that patience will be rewarded.

"This (wait) isn't as bad as searching for blues (whales)," he says. "Blues, you wait a half-hour and they're still hard to see. You need all day for blues."

Spider, who has not taken her eyes off the ocean all morning, is the first to spot both finbacks breaching at about 2 o'clock. As the larger of the two spouts a fire-hose amount of spume, Capt. Nick steers closer to the action. By the time he puts the boat in neutral, we are less than 50 feet from the whales.

"Whoa, that's a pretty slow roll he did there," Capt. Nick says, explaining finbacks often eat krill while swimming on their side. "We've got a great view now. Get your cameras ready. You're getting major blowhole action. Now here comes the fin on back out. Nice shot there."

Indeed, the finback has, essentially, mooned our boat as it dives deep.

Only about a minute passes before the larger of the two finbacks emerges again, this time at the 5 o'clock position. Finbacks travel at 14 mph but can swim short bursts at 35 mph.

"This guy is playing with me today," Capt. Nick says, trying to maneuver the boat closer to the new spot. "You never know with fin whales where they'll show up. They are faster than the boat. That's the beauty of them.

"My biggest enemy is the clock, so we've got to head back now. Maybe we'll see a south-bounder (gray) on the way back."

We do not. But the passengers seem content to have seen anything at all. Spider Fish is happy to have taken up Hornblower on its offer of a free return trip after going whaleless the day before. Jeff, for his part, can say he's seen a whale and, as a bonus, he didn't have to lose his breakfast to do so.


WHALE WATCHING OUT OF SAN DIEGO

Whale-watching expeditions, running December through April, have long been popular in San Diego. Here are a few of the many tour companies that provide cruises.

Hornblower Cruises and Events: Through April 30, Hornblower Cruises and Events offers 3 1/2-hour deluxe whale-watching adventure cruises in partnership with the San Diego Natural History Museum. Times: Daily at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Cost: $37 for adults and $18.50 for children (4-12 years old) on weekdays, $42 for adults and $21 for children (4-12 years old) on weekends. For more information: http://www.hornblower.com/hce/home

San Diego Whale Watch:Year-round whale-watching excursions are available from Seaforth Landing aboard the Privateer, a boat built specifically for whale watching. Times: Three-hour tours offered daily, 10 a.m., Monday through Thursday; and 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Cost: $44. For more information: www.sdwhalewatch.com

Next Level Sailing: Through April 30, in conjunction with the Maritime Museum of San Diego, Next Level offers whale watching aboard the yacht America, a historic replica of the first America's Cup winner. Times: 11 a.m. daily. Costs: $65 for adults and $34 for children (ages 12 and under) on weekdays and $85 for adults and $44 for children (ages 12 old and under) on weekends. (The price includes admission to the Maritime Museum.) For more information: www.nextlevelsailing.com

Flagship Cruises and Events: Through April 14, Flagship and naturalists from the Birch Aquarium at Scripps give a narrated tour twice daily. Times: 9:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Cost: $37 for adults on weekdays and $42 on weekends; $18.50 for children (4-12) on weekdays and $21 on weekends. For more information: http://www.sdhe.com/san-diego-whale-watching.html

OEX Dive & Kayak La Jolla: Through March 15, you can take a one-mile kayak tour that organizers say allows guests to paddle within 40 feet of gray whales, seals and sea lions. Times: 9 a.m., noon. Cost: $79 for a single kayak and $129 for a double kayak. Prices include transportation of the kayak to and from the beach, kayak rental, guided tour, life vest, paddle and wetsuit. More information: http://www.diveandkayaklajolla.com

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