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THE BIG WATCH : From Now Until April, It’s the Perfect Time for Awe-Inspiring Looks at Migrating Whales

Today is the first day of the season for many commercial whale-watch operations along the coast, but independent spirits John and Muriel Olguin of San Pedro have found their own adventurous way to meet the whales.

Every winter, the Olguins spend many weekends scanning the ocean for whale spouts, then rowing their small boat out to sea. “We see the spouts and we try to row to where they’ll be in an hour,” said John, 66, who retired last spring from co-directing the Cabrillo Marine Museum.

“We’ve had a whale come up right in front of us and blow. We’ve had five or six whales come up and whirl around us so fast I couldn’t take pictures of them.” Such experiences are awe-inspiring but not frightening, according to Olguin: “You very seldom hear of boats being turned over by whales.”

Olguin does not recommend this manner for those who whale-watch more conventionally, however. Boats with engines should “stay 100 yards away from the whales. Get behind them and follow gently and slowly,” he said. In fact, boats are required by law to stay 100 yards away from whales.

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Rowing a 15-foot dory several miles offshore and waiting for whales to surface nearby may not be everybody’s idea of a good time, but there are plenty of other ways to view the grays between now and early April. During the next four months, thousands of the huge mammals will swim past Southern California on their 12,000-mile trip from the Arctic to the Baja California lagoons and back.

Southern California whale-viewing venues are legion. You can go to sea on a three-level powerboat, which ordinarily commutes between Santa Catalina Island and Long Beach or Newport Beach; you can venture out on the smaller sportfishing boats that operate in many ports; you can board a two-masted schooner in San Diego; you can ride the wind on a six-passenger catamaran from Santa Barbara, or you can take a day-trip to Anacapa Island from Ventura. A few companies even offer helicopter rides to see the whales.

Some boat trips are narrated by naturalists or by trained American Cetacean Society volunteers, while on others the boat operators may comment more casually on what’s seen. Because whales don’t always cooperate, some companies offer “whale checks” at the end of flukeless expeditions for free future rides.

List of Provisions

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Occasionally a trip may be postponed if a storm kicks up, although “rough weather is sometimes better for whale watching, because it makes the whale come up higher to get a breath of air,” said Ridgely Keeley, American Cetacean Society whale-watch coordinator for Newport Beach. Seagoing whale-watchers should always take along warm jackets, and those who tend to get seasick should carry saltines or take motion-sickness medication before boarding a boat, Keeley said.

If you don’t like boats, period, you can try taking “your binoculars and your good warm rum” to high bluffs, such as those in Dana Point, and keep an eye peeled for offshore spouts, said Mike Bursk, Dana Wharf Sportfishing boat operator.

Other good vantage points from which to whale-watch are atop Point Dume, at Point Mugu, at Leo Carrillo State Beach and at the Point Vincente Interpretive Center, 31501 Palos Verdes Drive West, Rancho Palos Verdes.

Anywhere where there are high bluffs is a good whale-watch spot, said Judy Chovan, a science specialist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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Keep Rules in Mind

Those who go whale watching, whether they are commercial boat operators or private boat owners, should keep whale-watch rules in mind. Gray whales are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and by the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The National Marine Fisheries Service and the American Cetacean Society offer whale-watching guidelines for boaters.

Further suggestions are offered by Bursk, who has been an Fisheries Service field technician in the past.

“Study (the whales) from one-quarter mile away, learn their direction and speed, gracefully fall in behind them and don’t block their escape to either side,” Bursk said. “When you’re ready to leave, stop and let them go. Stay away from cows and calves altogether.”

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Bursk said he has noticed in recent years that the larger whales have had enough of increased boat traffic near the coast and are swimming farther offshore. Closer to the coastline, “basically what we get stuck with are the smaller animals. What we tried last year (at Dana Wharf) was running (up to 10 miles) offshore, and what we found were huge pods of five to 10 big ones.”

While there has been speculation that the whales are traveling farther from shore in recent years, said Donald R. Patten, national president of the American Cetacean Society, “there’s really no scientific documentation for that.”

What has been documented, said Patten, a mammalogist who was the curator of the Museum of Natural History until recently, is that the gray whale population of North America has increased significantly over the last 15 years.

Eleven thousand to 14,000 is a conservative estimate of the number of gray whales who will migrate along the Pacific Coast this season, Patten said. The whales tend to travel in “waves,” he said: First the pregnant females head toward the southern lagoons where most of the births take place (a few calves, however, are born mid-trip), then the adult males and non-pregnant females, then the sub-adult animals. The sub-adults are the first to leave Baja around February, Patten said, and last to begin swimming north are the adult mothers with their calves.

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Although the whales are rather single-minded commuters when they pass Southern California, they sometimes do more than swim and spout. Sometimes a whale will stop and “spyhop,” assuming a vertical position in the water and “moving its fluke back and forth so its head is just sticking out of the water, above the waterline,” Keeley said. Scientists theorize that the whales do this to get a better look at what’s around them on the water’s surface.

Occasionally a whale will breach, throwing itself up out of the water and landing again with a mighty splash. And sometimes whales mate and frolic during their long swim.

“It is very common to see three whales engaged in what appears to us to be sexual or courting behavior,” Patten said. “In some cases the behavior appears to be homosexual . . . (but) a lot of the behavior that appears to be sexual may just be part of the social milieu.” Whales, he said, are very tactile animals who apparently use touch as one means of communicating with each other.

Whale-watch trips often include glimpses of other sea animals. Occasionally killer whales, which sometimes attack the grays, are sighted. Dolphins and porpoises, which are also classed as whales, are frequently seen.

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White-sided and common dolphins are often seen off the Southern California coast, said the Natural History Museum’s Chovan. Pilot whales are also sometimes seen, but not that often in the last few years, she said.

More Dolphins Seen

However, more bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins have moved into the Southern California waters, according to John Heyning, assistant curator of mammals for the Natural History Museum. And Chovan said when one heads to sea with a whale-watch boat, “there’s always a chance you’ll see something really unusual” like a blue whale.

“All the large baleen (toothless, filter-feeding) whales migrate, and you can see them at various times during their trips,” she said. The Natural History Museum offers spring and fall whale-watch trips to look for non-gray whales, as well as nine-day summer excursions near Vancouver Island, Canada.

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For those who would like to visit the whales in the Mexico lagoons where they spend a few winter months, the American Cetacean Society and several San Diego companies offer excursions to Laguna San Ignacio.

At San Ignacio, “the whales are very curious, and the ‘friendly whale’ behavior has become very common,” Patten said. “It’s really a thrill to have them come close to the skiff . . . the whales will come over and investigate,” rubbing up against the small boats that set out from the larger cruise ship.

In the lagoon, Patten said, he’s “seen mothers asleep, and the calves are throwing themselves repeatedly on the mothers’ backs and sliding off into the water, over and over, just playing.”

Laguna San Ignacio is “the only place in the world where you can go and pet a whale. It’s the top of the line” for whale-watching, according to Olguin.

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But Olguin also sings the praises of whale-watching in Southern California. “Nowhere else in the world are (the whales) as close to a densely populated area as in Southern California,” he said.

“You can see whales on TV, you can see them in slides, but there’s nothing like seeing the real animal.”


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