Founders of the American Cetacean Society here in Los Angeles were first interested in whales as a cheap source of protein. The idea, as they considered it back in 1967, was to harvest whales as a way to feed the world's poor.
Yet they quickly discovered that whale populations were in terrible shape from the harpoons of commercial whalers, and the society evolved into what today is the world's oldest whale conservation and education group.
To spread its abiding love of whales, the American Cetacean Society joins every year with the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro to train dozens of volunteer naturalists to act as interpreters at sea.
It's their job to educate and entertain boatloads of whale watchers, to keep the passengers' eyes on the horizon in search of spouts and their minds off the stomach-churning seas.
It's also their job to spread a not-so-subtle message about the plight of the whales. "They're not saved yet," reads an American Cetacean Society patch sewed onto the members' matching red jackets. The society wants Americans to continue to champion the welfare of these marine mammals, which are still hunted for their meat by Japan and other whaling nations.
So after weeks of talking about whales in indoor classes, the volunteers clambered aboard a boat in pursuit of the real thing. This training voyage, held every Dec. 26, marks the unofficial opening of the whale-watching season, which will continue through March. It's the period each year when gray whales migrate from arctic feeding grounds to breeding grounds in Baja and then make the return trip.
Yet the procession of gray whales is intermittent. The largest numbers heading southbound won't swim by Southern California until mid-January into early February. (The peak of the northbound swimmers comes during the first two weeks of March.)
Julie Venner, a second-grade teacher from San Dimas who was training as a volunteer naturalist, turned to a veteran to raise the question on the minds of every rookie.
"You've been on six or eight of these training trips; what percentage did you see whales?" Venner asked.
"We got skunked only once," answered Don Eichhorn.
"Oh, I thought it was like 50% of the time," she said.
"Every trip is different," he said.
On this trip, the rookies learned the basics. How to inspire the passengers to work collectively in the hunt for whales -- all eyes searching just below the horizon. How to get the passengers to think of their hands as parts of a clock and be ready to yell out 12 o'clock for a whale spotted off the bow, 6 o'clock for one off the stern.
As the training day wore on without a sign of a whale, Larry Fukuhara, a Cabrillo Marine Aquarium manager, picked up the microphone and took on the role of cheerleader.
"OK, we're not giving up," he said. "Keep looking back and forth on the horizon for that tell-tale spout.... It's a beautiful day. All we need is one little whale."
The boat had departed from King Harbor in Redondo Beach and cruised down the coast and around Palos Verdes Peninsula, where the American Cetacean Society does an annual tally of migrating gray whales.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who directs the census, took the microphone to report that volunteers spotted 449 southbound and 727 northbound gray whales last year using binoculars from their bluff-top perch at Point Vicente.
The microphone was passed to other experts who talked about seabirds, sea lions, the geology of the peninsula that is slowly tumbling into the sea, and even the site of long-defunct Marineland, a place that once featured whales as entertainers.
Diana McIntyre, who has been training whale-watch volunteers since 1973, said the key to a successful whale-watch trip -- when there are no whales to be seen -- is to fill time by focusing attention on other living and interesting things.
"We do every song and dance we know to keep people happy," McIntyre said. "But they all want to see whales. It is very frustrating."
Eventually the microphone was turned over to John Olguin, the retired director of the aquarium who started the whale-watch program 32 years ago.
At 82, with a snowy beard and blue seafarer's cap, Olguin entertained the crowd with his whale imitations. He whistled, clicked his tongue, hummed and sputtered, impersonating every marine mammal except porpoises, which, he said, make sounds like "bathroom noises."
"John is a master of filling time," McIntyre said, obviously relieved to share the burden.
The procession of speakers continued. One woman explained how after a long, uneventful day at sea, five gray whales showed up just outside the entrance to the harbor. Another speaker passed around pictures of whale sightings on previous trips.
Some passengers slumped in their chairs. A few snoozed.
"Don't give up," Fukuhara pleaded. "Keep looking around."
As the boat headed back to the harbor, it encountered a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins.
"All right, we have cetaceans!" exclaimed Schulman-Janiger.
The boat turned in pursuit. The dolphins, in turn, put on a show for the passengers, gamboling in the surrounding waters and escorting the boat by playing off the bow.
The passengers were up on their feet, straining to see, pointing and calling out dolphin sightings at 9 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 5 o'clock.
"Boy, they saved the day," Olguin said. "At least, we didn't get skunked.
"Remember," he winked, "dolphins are just little whales."