Off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Costa Mesa car salesman Dean Shulman came face-to-fluke with a graceful giant he has spent three months studying--the Pacific gray whale.
"The adrenaline is really pumping," an exhilarated Shulman said seconds after one of the mammals surfaced and submerged, flourishing its heart-shaped tail. "This is such an exciting moment."
The thrill was shared by about 100 volunteers aboard the Long Beach vessel Empress--most of whom, like Shulman, were learning to be whale watch tour leaders getting some experience at sea.
The whale-watching season began Dec. 26. Cabrillo Whalewatch, a nonprofit San Pedro group that trains volunteers to lead whale sighting tours, takes its trainees out each year on the occasion, traditionally the day after Christmas.
Aboard the Empress, one of several local excursion vessels trailing gray whales, the three-hour outing was not a disappointment. The official tally of close-range sightings: four gray whales, three sea lions and more than 50 dolphins.
"This is one of the best trips we've had on a Dec. 26," said John Olguin, a founder of Cabrillo Whalewatch and director emeritus of the Cabrillo Marine Museum. "In other years, it's felt like we've been almost all the way to San Francisco without seeing one whale."
Locally, whale watching focuses on the commonly sighted Pacific gray, a bottom-feeding coastal whale that is seen from December to mid-February as it swims to its Baja California calving grounds, and from mid-February to May as it returns to Alaska.
The whales--which live about 50 years, can grow to more than 40 feet in length and can weigh up to 40 tons--were once believed to be nearing extinction. Now they are estimated to number more than 20,000, though not all of them take part in the Alaska-Baja migrations.
More than 50 a day are seen along the local coastline during the height of their southbound migration at the end of January. More than 100 a day are seen during the peak northbound migration in late February and early March.
"For some reason, they seem to swim through here closer to shore on their way back to Alaska, so more are spotted," said Alisa Schulman, a high school science teacher who trains Cabrillo Whalewatch volunteers.
Last week's outing for Whalewatch trainees began inauspiciously. Foggy conditions initially grounded the spotter plane used to lead excursion boats to the whales.
But the fog burned off, and less than an hour out of Long Beach, the first gray whale was sighted, followed soon by a pod of three others. The whales swam as close as 100 yards to the excursion ship, spouting and exposing their barnacle-flecked bodies between dives.
Using a public address system, Whalewatch veterans used the event to introduce trainees to some subtleties of their craft. Among the lessons: how to estimate the length of a whale's dive and how to track the mammals while they are submerged by studying the water's surface.
Since October, the trainees have received a weekly three hours of classroom instruction from Whalewatch, a group co-sponsored by the Cabrillo Marine Museum and the American Cetacean Society.
"I'm already thinking about speaking on my first trip," said Carol Carson, a former Cal State primate expert and aerospace employee who is learning to lead whale watches. "I'm just afraid I'll never remember all this."
The trainees also received more practical instruction--Olguin, for instance, showed them the value of entertaining restless passengers by telling a good story and imitating whale noises when there are no whales in sight.
He also warned them that trips will sometimes not be as smooth as last week's. "We have been out here whale watching with 500 people, and 499 of them were throwing up," he said.
And inadvertently, the veteran whale watchers even taught their charges about the hazards of jumping to conclusions.
Toward the end of the outing, they told the passengers they had spotted a giant school of dolphin ahead, provoking a rush to the Empress' bow.
The roiling in the water, it turned out, was a floating flock of cormorants.
After discovering the error, Olguin announced: "They just turned into birds. Forget it."