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FAMILY : Want a Real Deep Experience? : It’s whale-watching season, and your odds of spotting one of the behemoths are better now than ever.

<i> Laurie K. Schenden, a Calendar copy editor, writes the 54 Hours and Cheap Thrills columns for the Life & Style section</i>

Michael Nickles thought his 30th birthday would be a great time to make his first whale-watching excursion.

“The group before me came back and said, ‘We saw 13, 14 whales,’ ” Nickles recalls.

But all he took away from his maiden voyage was a rain check, a consolation offering on some boats when your whale sightings total zero. Then he got another rain check, and then another.

Ever the trouper, Nickles returned this season with seven close friends--who all carried rocks “for luck"--and set out for the deep blue-gray from Redondo Beach on the last day of 1994.

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Just 15 minutes after their ship, the Voyager, pulled away from the dock, a tuft of water spouted on the horizon, followed by a gray whale. It’s hard to say who was more relieved: Nickles, his friends--or the other passengers, who overheard Nickles’ no-whales tales.

This is just the beginning of the whale-watching season, which goes from late December to about mid-March. On their three-month trip from the Arctic to Baja California, the whales follow the coast, passing hundreds of vessels. The pregnant mothers are the first to leave, so that they arrive in time to give birth, says Doug Carpenter, the volunteer guide on the Voyager.

Whales aren’t big on group travel, either. You might see three or four together, but typically whales are loners. They spend three months in Baja, during which time the babies nurse, gaining 100 pounds a day, Carpenter says, to shore up for the trip back to the Arctic. Adult whales don’t eat much in Baja--mainly because there isn’t much there.

On board the Voyager, Peggy Biscow of Santa Monica scanned the horizon with her 2 1/2-year-old son, Evan.

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“People are used to Sea World, seeing the whales come right up,” she says. “This takes more work than that.”

How much work is cruising along the coast on a crisp winter day? In the beginning, you have 50 heads go in all directions after the guide yells out “10 o’clock” when he spots whale tracks (smooth patches of water created by a whale’s fluke under the surface). But halfway into the three-hour trip, all heads are snapping in one direction.

Boats aren’t allowed to get any closer to the whales than 100 yards. But apparently the whales aren’t much for rules. On this excursion, one young whale surfaces so close to the boat that passengers have to lean over the side to see it.

“Some boats have bigger engines and generators and make a lot of noise,” said Mark Podoll, captain of the Aztec out of Long Beach. “The best boats have a small engine. They’re a lot quieter.”

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“The whales take it upon themselves to decide what they will or won’t avoid,” says Danielle Oki, supervisor of educational programs for Sea World, which hosts its own whale-watching program.

There are lots of boats to choose from, from ports all along the coast. Most companies cooperate when one makes a sighting. Several even chip in to pay for a scouting plane, which reports back to each company.

“Everybody works together,” says Veronica Wegner, co-owner of the tour operation out of Long Beach Sportfishing. Captains of competing companies routinely radio the locations to each other when they spot a whale.

“Once you’ve got (paying customers) on the boat,” Wegner says, “it doesn’t do anything for you if you see a whale to keep it to yourself.” One of Wegner’s competitors is, in fact, her husband, Curt. His boat departs from Belmont Pier in Long Beach.

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The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium supplies narrators on daily trips out of Redondo Beach, 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro and Catalina Cruises in Long Beach. The Sea World program runs only Saturdays this month; for $17, you get a slide show, lecture and two- to three-hour outing in Mission Bay.

The narrators talk about how whales were plentiful in the late 1800s, numbering about 20,000. When whaling began, the mammals were fished down to just a few hundred.

Atlantic gray whales are considered extinct, says Oki of Sea World. Last year, after decades on the Endangered Species List, the Pacific--or California--gray whales were taken off, though they are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In fact, there are more Pacific gray whales today than there were in pre-whaling days.

Because this time of year the whales are just getting started on their trek south, it used to be considered a slow period. But there are already a lot of whales on the move, with numerous sightings each day. But just in case, it might be a good idea to carry a lucky rock.*

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* Costs range from $8 to $14 ; discounts for groups. Redondo Sportfishing, (310) 372-2111; Long Beach Sportfishing , (310) 434-6781; Sea World , (619) 226-3903; 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro, (310) 832-2676.


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