WET & WILD : Cruises Spout Whale Wisdom and More

David Haldane is a staff writer for the Times Orange County Edition

No gray whales were seen during a recent whale-watching excursion off the south Orange County coast.

Lots of worms, however, got sifted from a huge glob of mud retrieved from the ocean floor. Passengers got a close-up look at strings of ocean plankton through the ship's video microscope. And just as the vessel headed for home, a pod of dolphins began playing in the vessel's wake.

"What a treat!" Dana Point resident Donna Sims said after spending half an hour watching the dozens of sleek graceful animals frolicking in the boat-made waves. "We've come out whale-watching before, but we didn't see any dolphins."

Like a handful of other vessels up and down the coast, the R / V Sea Explorer, the Orange County Marine Institute's seagoing research vessel, began its winter cruise schedule in January, just in time for the annual southward migration of the gray whales.

"We want people to walk away feeling excited," says Julie Smith, director of the institute's at-sea program, which includes the whale-watching excursions. "I hope we can increase their level of interest."

A major object of that interest, the California gray whale, measures up to 50 feet in length and weighs as much as 40 tons. Dark gray with white markings, it is a baleen whale, with fringed plates hanging like curtains from its upper jaw instead of teeth.

Every year at this time, the whales undertake a journey that to most humans seems incomprehensible: a roughly 12,000-mile round trip between their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic and their winter breeding grounds along Mexico's Baja coast. During the winter months, their journey follows the coastlines of the Aleutian Islands chain, down past British Columbia and the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, to the shallow lagoons of Baja. Traveling in single file or small groups, they swim night and day at a steady rate of five or six miles an hour, usually taking two to three months to reach their destination.

It is during those months that Californians flock to shoreline observation points and specialized seagoing vessels hoping to catch glimpses of one of the world's largest mammals.

The story is the same at Dana Point Harbor, from wherV Sea Explorer ventures out to sea and north toward Laguna Beach every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 3:30 p.m.

Generally, Smith said, the whales are spotted on 75% to 80% of the cruises. Often the first visual indication of their presence is a stream of water shooting into the air in the distance as the enormous creatures surface to clear their blowholes. Once spotted, a whale is carefully pursued by the captain, who tries to put the Sea Explorer as close to the animal as possible before cutting the engines.

From then on, it's all a matter of luck. Sometimes the ship's passengers manage only a glimpse of the whale's back or tail from a distance as it lifts itself partially out of the water to dive. Occasionally, though, passengers are treated to the full spectacle of an enormous mammal coming close enough almost to touch. "It's amazing" is how Smith describes the experience. But it was an experience missing on this particular day.

Heading back toward port in the late afternoon, the passengers seemed restless and disappointed. Such a beautiful day, yet not a single whale had been seen. Then, glancing off into the distance, someone noticed a dolphin.

As the ship drew closer, their numbers increased. First two, then four, then six; virtually flying through the water in pairs, they weaved effortlessly up and down and in and out, rising playfully above the surface to perform wild acrobatics in the air before sinking back out of view.

Within minutes, the ship was surrounded by a pod of some 30 to 40 animals. Swimming gleefully, they seemed to show off for the passengers who responded appreciatively with enthusiastic waves and cheers.

"They're really neat!" enthused Courtney Scarborough, 10, of San Juan Capistrano. "I've never seen one in the ocean."

Said Huntington Beach resident Jeff Baker, 32: "They look so cool. . . . It's so much better than seeing them at Sea World."

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