They’re big and they’re back.
Migrating whales, forsaking the frigid waters of the Arctic in favor of the balmy lagoons of Baja, are now cruising off Orange County’s coast and drawing whale watchers by the hundreds.
Hoping for a glimpse of the majestic creatures, students from a Riverside high school, along with tourists from as far away as England, recently packed the Western Pride, a 80-foot whale-watching boat based at Davie’s Locker at the Balboa Pavilion. They were not disappointed.
Three endangered California gray whales and one smaller minke whale surfaced nearby and occasionally spouted water into the air during the three-hour trip, prompting oohs and aahs from the watchers.
Eileen Beckett, a resident of Buckinghamshire, England, on a business trip with her husband, said she said felt “excited and privileged” to see a whale, which she called “the king of the sea.”
“My husband, with his video camera, is chasing this poor whale around. Actually it’s having fun with us. It’s leading us a dance,” she said.
Dressed in sweat shirts, gray-and-black Los Angeles Raiders jackets and blue jeans, 57 students from Jurupa Valley High School in Riverside crowded the bow and strained for a glimpse of the elusive creatures. For the first hour of the trip, no one saw any signs of whales despite cloudless skies and good enough visibility to see Santa Catalina Island and snow-capped Mt. San Antonio, a.k.a. as Mt. Baldy.
Then, Rayelin Taylor, 16, who helped organize the trip for her school, spotted a minke whale that surfaced about 100 yards from the boat.
“At first I thought it was a dolphin, but it was too big to be a dolphin. It was exciting because I didn’t think we were going to be able to see one. And I got extra credit because I was the first one to tell them where it was,” she said.
The shiny, dark gray minke whale sliced through the water’s surface briefly, then dived as the boat slowed to a crawl off the coast of Laguna Beach. The 25-foot minke surfaced minutes later less than 25 feet from the stern, as many of the watchers clicked away on their cameras.
About 20 minutes later, the sighting of three California gray whales sent excited students scurrying to the opposite side of the boat, where they called to each other and pointed as the whales surfaced and spouted mist 10 feet into the air.
Virginia Caro, 15, of Riverside said whale-watching trips make people more sensitive to the environment and more willing to help creatures like the whales. “Seeing that they’re in danger and seeing them in their natural habitat, (people will) not want to ruin it,” she said.
Still, some say the public’s interest is a double-edged sword.
“We may be loving the whales to death with whale watching,” said Dennis Kelly, a marine biology professor at Orange Coast College.
“I’m particularly concerned about the evidence that the whale watching is chasing whales off the coast. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong and this will be a banner year,” but last year, fewer whales were seen. More whale-watching trips have seen fewer whales, he said.
However, Mark Jonasson, a 38-year-old oceanography teacher from Jurupa Valley High School, said he thinks that the large organized tours pose little threat to the whales.
“It’s like public transit,” Jonasson said. “It’s better to have a lot of people in one place than have 40 people buzzing around in speedboats.” And commercial boat captains are more apt to know and obey the rules for watching whales, he added.
Jonasson said there is no substitute for seeing the whales firsthand.
“This beats a photograph,” he said.