They're back. The gray whales, that is, those graceful, hulking creatures that cruise by our coastline about this time every year.
The whales are in the midst of their annual migration from Alaska to the warm-water lagoons of Baja California, where they cavort for awhile before heading back north in the spring.
If you're looking for an outing during the holidays, consider a whale-watching trip where you're likely to see some of these beauties stream through the water.
Island Packers Cruises, based at Ventura Harbor, starts daily excursions today. The whale-watching season continues until the end of March when the whales have passed back through the Santa Channel, heading north to the Bering Sea.
Island Packers offers morning and afternoon outings, cruising the waters near Anacapa Island. The trips last 3 1/2 to four hours and cost $21 for adults and $14 for children ages 12 and under.
If you want a full-day whale-watching adventure, Island Packers also takes daily eight-hour voyages to Anacapa Island (Santa Cruz Island on Friday, Saturday and Sunday), where the boats land and passengers can explore the islands a bit. These cost $37-$47 for adults and $20-$35 for children.
The whales are definitely in the area, according to Mark Connally, co-owner of Island Packers. The first local sighting was during mid-November, he said.
"We've been seeing whales during the last week," he said. "It looks like they're on schedule or ahead of schedule."
What are your chances of spotting one of these magnificent creatures? Island Packers doesn't guarantee it, but on 90% to 95% of the trips, there is a whale sighting, Connally said. On the average, passengers might see half a dozen.
Sometimes you get an added bonus. Occasionally killer whales, or orcas, are spotted. "They're pretty impressive because of their aggression, power and speed," he said.
About three or four years ago, passengers on one of his excursion boats had a taste of "nature in action," he said. The boat came upon a group of killer whales feeding on a gray whale calf while the mother tried in vain to protect the calf.
But on these trips, you're more likely to see groups of dolphins diving, surfacing and playing. They are fun to watch, but the whales are the headliners of this show.
The captain keeps an eye on the horizon, looking for the familiar spout of mist. Once it's spotted, the boat chugs toward the whale, but it can come no closer than 100 yards, and the captain must take care not to disturb the animal.
"Sometimes the whale approaches the boat," Connally said. On one trip, the boat idled while passengers watched a whale. It came alongside and scratched itself on the side of the boat.
Just as spectacular is the sight of a whale breeching, heaving most of its massive bulk out of the water and plunging back down with a huge splash.
The gray whales leave Alaska in October and head south, traveling about 5 mph, or about 115 miles per day. The pregnant whales are in the lead.
Until you see them in the water, you can't appreciate their size. Even as babies they stretch 15 feet. By the time they are adults, they've grown to about 40 feet. They can submerge for up to 15 minutes.
The whaling industry nearly decimated their ranks. Since they've been protected in the U.S., their numbers have grown from a low of about 8,000 during the early 1900s to an estimated 22,000.
During the whale-watching trips, staffers talk about these amazing creatures over the loudspeaker. It takes nearly an hour to get into the deeper water where the whales are most likely to be spotted.
You'll have lots of company on board; Island Packers' boats, 55 to 85 feet in length, carry from 49 to 125 passengers.
While you're on the boat, you can move around. The better viewing spots are at the front and on the top decks. For those prone to seasickness, the smoothest ride is at the rear.
* WHAT: Whale-watching cruises.
* WHERE: Island Packers Cruises is located at Ventura Harbor, next to the Channel Islands National Park building at the end of Spinnaker Drive.
* WHEN: Half-day and whole-day trips daily.
* COST: Half day, $21 for adults, $14 for children 12 and under. Whole day, $37-$47 for adults, $20-$35 for children 12 and under.
* CALL: 642-1393.