Thar she blows! A hot spot for whale watching in L.A.’s backyard

A whale jumps out of the ocean.
A humpback whale breaches in the Santa Barbara Channel.
(Los Angeles Times illustration; photograph by Lottie Keenan)

A few times a year, something incredible happens to Jake Hensley: He gets mugged. No, not the kind where you get robbed in a dark alley. This type of mugging happens out on the ocean, when a curious whale floats alongside Hensley’s boat and eyes him and his passengers. He’s the captain of the Ranger 85, a sportfishing and whale-watching vessel for Channel Islands Whale Watching. Getting mugged by whales is a perk of the job.

“The muggings are spectacular,” Hensley said. “When that whale comes up and he’s upwind of you, you can actually smell his spout, you smell his breath because he was just feeding on some sardines. That’s how close you are to these guys.”

Whale watchers observe humpback whales in the Santa Barbara Channel.
(Bob Carey / Los Angeles Times)

These magical encounters happen in an under-the-radar SoCal wildlife hot spot: the Santa Barbara Channel, an expanse of ocean sandwiched between the Santa Barbara County coastline and Channel Islands National Park. From December through May, Hensley and his crew host regular whale-watching trips into the channel from Oxnard, just an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. From his perch in the ship’s wheelhouse, he gets a front-row seat for encounters with aquatic animals.

“The channel is just teeming with life,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll see fin whales, minke whales, orcas, gray whales, all on the same three-hour trip. That’s really rare to have. And it’s right here in our backyard.”

Channel Islands harbor in Oxnard, California.
Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, the home port for Hensley and his crew.
(Michael Charboneau)

In Hensley’s view, most people in Southern California have no idea there’s a marine paradise just offshore. But that may be changing: The Santa Barbara Channel was recently designated a Whale Heritage Area, one of just two such sites in the U.S. The channel received the designation for its unique and thriving underwater ecosystem where warm and cold currents meet. That mix causes nutrient-rich water to rise upward and support a whole web of life, including bait fish, sea birds and over 25 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

My wife and I recently joined one of Hensley’s whale-watching tours, and the channel’s sea life was on full display. Pelicans skimmed the waves as we exited the harbor, and within about 20 minutes, a pod of dolphins appeared, arcing gracefully through the water near the bow of the boat. As we made our way into the channel, a volunteer naturalist gave us a primer on the whales we might see, and Hensley used an intercom to make announcements about where we were headed.

Whale watchers on a boat in the Santa Barbara Channel.
Hensley drives his boat, the Ranger 85, as passengers scan the horizon for whales.
(Michael Charboneau)

Soon, groups of circling sea birds came into view — a sign of “bait balls” of fish below the water’s surface that attract whales, especially humpbacks. Then we saw a spout in the distance. Hensley motored closer. Soon, we were zipping between groups of humpbacks and gray whales as they spouted, glided along the surface and then dived back into the ocean’s depths.

Dolphins in water in the Santa Barbara Channel.
Dolphins are a common sight in the Santa Barbara Channel.
(Michael Charboneau)

Now’s the time to get out there. The gray whale migration lasts another couple of weeks, and Channel Islands Harbor is hosting its 25th annual Celebration of the Whales on April 7. Stop by to learn more about the whale migration, listen to live music, and help paint a community mural. Tours at Channel Islands Whale Watching are offered until May; check out the Visit Oxnard website for info on other whale tour operators.

Bring a pair of binoculars and keep your eyes peeled — if you’re really lucky, you might get mugged.

A wiggly line break

3 things to do

A hiking crew dressed in Dodgers blue poses for a photo beneath the Hollywood sign near Mt. Lee.
The Dodgers Blue Hiking Crew in Griffith Park.
(Daniel Morales)

1. Paint the trails blue in Los Feliz
Throw on your new Shohei Ohtani jersey and join hundreds of Dodgers fans for an intermediate morning hike through Griffith Park. The uniquely Angeleno pep rally, hosted by Dodgers Blue Hiking Crew, will stretch approximately 6½ miles, beginning with the Fern Canyon Trail, and ending with the Mineral Wells Trail. It’ll be led by L.A.-based hiking group H1gh Hikers’ Juan Andrade, and last approximately 4 hours. Attendees are encouraged to wear blue! Also: sun protection and appropriate trail shoes. Fans should meet at Merry-Go-Round Parking Lot No. 2 at 7 a.m. Sunday. The hike will start at 7:30 a.m. sharp. For more details visit the group’s Facebook Events page.


2. Make the beach sparkle in Ventura
Help keep our precious coast pristine by joining a beach cleanup effort at the Channel Islands National Park. The three-hour event kicks off at 9 a.m. Saturday. Volunteers should bring their own buckets, gloves and water, but other supplies will be provided. No need to register; for more information visit

3. Rethink your relationship with plants in Altadena
Get to know the greenery that grows in L.A. on an ecology walk with Paige Emery, an artist and herbalist whose work is informed by critical ecology, ethnobotany and ecopsychology. The 2-hour tour will include a discussion on building reciprocal relationships with our natural environment. It’s hosted by L.A.’s A+D Museum and costs $7.50 for the general public, and $3.50 for members and students. The journey begins at 10 a.m Sunday at the Echo Sunset Prieto Trail Loop. To learn more and buy a ticket, visit

A wiggly line break

The must-read

Evan Kim, 12, ran a 2:58 in the Ventura marathon, making her the fastest girl or woman age 1-19, second fastest overall
Evan Kim, 12, ran the Ventura Marathon in 2 hours 58 minutes recently, the fastest time for a female under 20 and second-fastest overall.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Although she’s only 12 years old, Evan Kim is already a faster runner than I (or most people) ever will be. Last month, she ran the Ventura Marathon in a blistering 2 hours 58 minutes, averaging less than 7 minutes per mile. Times writer Noah Goldberg chronicled this speedy young runner and shed light on what makes her so fast. An iron will is certainly part of it, and an early start didn’t hurt, either: She has been running since she was 6. Now she’s training for the California International Marathon in December, where she aims to run the fastest marathon for a 12-year-old person. I think she’s an inspiration to runners of all ages, whether you’re just starting out with running or you’re a veteran marathoner.

Happy adventuring,

Signature for Michael Charboneau


It’s not related to the outdoors, but I loved this photo essay about the closing of The Times’ Olympic printing plant, where newspapers have been produced for decades. (Production has moved to another plant in Riverside.) It’s an intriguing look into the intricate process of creating a daily newspaper and the hardworking people who make it happen.

For more insider tips on Southern California’s beaches, trails and parks, check out past editions of The Wild. And to view this newsletter in your browser, click here.