Friday, March 3, 2017

Grey whale watch: wondrous creatures of the deep visit our 'back yard'

When the grey whale "breathes," it's through his blowhole, the equivalent of a nostril, a magnificent sound and sight.  



Barnacles on the grey whale are kind of hitchhikers, using the whale
for free transport while they hunt for food. Whale lice are also found
on this whale, and they pick off pieces of dead skin and flesh.
WHAT COULD be more exciting than looking a grey whale in his gorgeous eye, being so close you can hear the sounds of his blow, marveling at the barnacles encrusted on his hide.
Yes, if you're quiet, you can really hear the sound of his blowhole -- a mighty whosh of air expulsion. Thus the expression, "thar she blows."
Flagship departs daily from mid-December into April for whale watching
from San Diego Bay. Scripps Aquarium naturalists enhance the experience. 
Around the blowhole are both lice
and barnacles. Neither does harm.
Keller and  Cookie on the whale trail -- spotting seven whales.
Each year, more than 20,000 gray whales make an impressive 10,000 mile round-trip journey from Alaskan waters to the lagoons of Baja California, where the females give birth to their calves. We lucky San Diegans may watch the journey
close-up, so this time of year, look for us on the water -- on the several boats offered by Hornblower, Flagship and a couple smaller venues. Sailor Keller has even piloted our own craft. But it's more fun for him to let someone else do the driving so he can take photos.
WE CAN CATCH the grey whales multiple times during their coming and going -- because after spending time in warm Baja California waters so their young can grow strong, they make the journey north again later in spring. This remarkable trip represents the longest known distance any mammal migrates on an annual basis and for this Montana girl and my San Diego born partner, it is an extraordinary spectacle to observe.
This year, we've been out a seven times, exploring the 70 miles of coastline in the migration path.  We've seen whales every time -- now nearly 40 outings in the near decade I've been a grateful part-time San Diegan.
Michael, a knowledgeable Hornblower volunteer, instructs kids on baleen,
made of the same karatin as our finger nails.  Gentle touching is allowed.
While we've observed the aquatic parade of gentle giants from land -- at the Torrey Pines Glider Port, Cabrillo National Monument, the lovely Birch Aquarium and from our favorite picnic spot in the La Jolla hills, we prefer spotting them on the water.  Then we can see the rainbow in the spray from the blow and hear them breathing.  We can even see the barnacles that grip their skin for a free ride -- and we can admire the baleen which acts as a food filter as they suck in the water and its contents, straining the protein rich fish and shrimp for nutrition.
WHILE HORNBLOWER has a delightful arsenal of knowledgeable volunteers and naturalists, all the whale watching ships have articulate, passionate friends of the whale aboard. Flagship's are from Birch Aquarium.
Flagship's Patriot also offers a high-speed chance to view the whales.
We always chat with the naturalists, and learn something each time. We've delighted in our study of the greys, who usually travel alone or in pods of two or three. We've seen more -- in peak migration season -- each one about the width of a basketball court.  They always know we're nearby and don't seem to mind. They travel at about five knots (about six miles per hour), so when a boat captain or passenger spots one, we slow down -- usually from about five or six miles out, although we've seen them at closer range.
Playful dolphins are a bonus on a whale watch. 
Check out Hornblower, Flagship and San Diego Whale Watch websites if you've got company coming -- for an experience unique to San Diego: or  You'll board either one on North Harbor Drive just south of Broadway Pier.
Please don't overlook San Diego Whale Watch, which boards from "the other bay," much smaller Mission Bay near SeaWorld. Both spirited and knowledgeable, naturalist Dani adds immensely to the pleasure and education of the day.
The whale experts from all three operations enhance the outings, and you'll be amazed that each venture is different from all others -- sometimes hundreds of dolphins escort the ship. Occasionally, whales are spotted just a mile or so out. Other times, particularly with the more illusive northbound whales, they might not appear until near the end of the three-hour venture.
You may be able to get a close-up view of a whale. Perhaps
 even a turtle.  Connecting with another species: priceless.
We've NEVER failed to see at least a couple whales whenever we go, morning or afternoon, December or April.
FOOD AND DRINK are available on all the vessels.  But the best "food" is the mental and emotional nourishment you'll enjoy.

BEST BETS: If you're a theater buff anywhere on the North American continent, head to San Diego for a fabulous array of quality productions as this lively community celebrates Theatre Week. Behold and buy tickets for  a variety of riches from comedy to tragedy and musicals: 

Clifton's is downtown Los Angeles is a splendid survivor of the cafeteria age.

NEXT UP: Climb down the rabbit hole when you visit Clifton's in Los Angeles. California’s lone survivor from the Golden Age of cafeterias gives new meaning to 
"dining experience" with stuffed animals, a giant tree growing  through a couple floors, a “Cabinet of Curiosities” and more to celebrate California’s diverse natural and cultural legacy in a forest themed environment. Remember to explore, learn and live, and catch us weekends for a twist on the arts, nature and travel.


  1. Spectacular photos. Great read. Headed your way. Hooray.

  2. Los Angeles AficionadoMarch 5, 2017 at 6:29 PM

    Brilliant. So happy to see this.

  3. Good job letting us know about this wondrous annual event. We are coming your way.

  4. Windsor Whale WatchersMarch 7, 2017 at 4:30 PM

    We follow your fun travels, and we're fellow whale watchers. Enjoyed your story about the beautiful orcas in the Pacific Northwest..... you are helping our endangered ocean.