I have had the great fortune to live most of my life in cities that are popular vacation destinations. This means that there is always plenty to do, rarely an excuse for weekend boredom and (unfortunately) activities I continuously put off but never do (I still regret missing the Glass Flowers in Boston). Whale watching has always been on that latter list – something that sounds fun but never is a priority. A killer Groupon and some enthusiastic friends helped finally make it a reality last weekend.
Our trip was led by H&M Landing, a local operation based out of Point Loma specializing in deep sea fishing expeditions and including whale watching tours during the prime migration season. Grey whales pass through San Diego waters every January-March on their southward migration from Alaskan waters to breeding pools in Baja California. The fishing vessels serve double duty during whale season, a unforeseen benefit as they are smaller and more maneuverable than the packed, oversized vessels venturing out from other companies in the area. This meant that, when necessary, we were able to get quite close to the whale pods and, most importantly, each passenger had a direct line of sight to take it all in.
We had a beautiful day for our three-hour tour; the sun was shining brightly overhead, the intensity of its heat tempered by a soft ocean breeze. As we exited San Diego harbor, the view of the skyline was crisp and clear. Our captain enthusiastically pointed out the North Island Naval Air Station, as well as the Coronado Bridge and Hotel del Coronado.
Before exiting the calm safety of harbor waters, we took a quick detour to some defunct bait docks just off of Point Loma. They have been taken over by large numbers of sea lions and their pups. The boat was able to scoot just alongside the floating platforms, causing a bit of a ruckus amongst the colony, rousting several from lazy naps as our ship blocked their sunlight. Several jumped in the water, barking at us loudly from the safer waters on the other side of the dock, and one even waved hello.
We stayed just long enough to snap a few photos and coo at the babies before setting our course for the open ocean once again. As we closed in on the harbor neck, the old Point Loma lighthouse looked down on us from the cliffs above, and dolphins tracked alongside our boat, playing with each other while following us out to sea.
We set our course for the Coronado islands, a few miles out to sea. This short island chain belongs to Mexico, but are uninhabited and a protected wildlife refuge, as well as a popular destination for divers year-round. We aimed our bow in that direction and spent the next several hours moving in and out of international waters on our quest for the (not-so-elusive, it turns out) grey whale.
Our group took up residence on the top deck and happily sipped coffee while enjoying the sunshine and ocean air as we moved further out to sea. We were asked to keep our eyes peeled for “blows” (the white stream emitted when the whale surfaces to breathe) in the distance, so he could guide our boat closer to the migrating beasts. We actually spotted the first whale, and from there we were off – tracking “blows” and “footprints” and chasing watching whales (we ended up spotting at least 13!) all around us.
With such beautiful weather and, importantly, calm seas, we were not the only ones to take advantage of the day to get out on the water. We often joined small groups of private sailboats and the like who also were scouting for marine life and enjoying the open water.
While we seemed to have good (lucky) whale-spotting karma , the best part of our tour was our captain. Captain Scott was good humored and full of fun factoids to keep us laughing and learning while we were waiting to spot the next spout or during the 5-7 minute increments when the whales dove deep between surfacing events. More than that, I have never heard or seen someone so excited by the prospect of seeing a whale. Despite doing this job day in/day out, he was the most enthusiastic person on the boat anytime a new potential whale was sighted and ready, when rare events took place, (i.e. “THE ELUSIVE DOUBLE BLOW!!!”), to be sure that we had our cameras out at the ready and that we understood how lucky we actually were.
(aforementioned ELUSIVE DOUBLE BLOW – saying that does not get tired)
In fact, at the point he announced that we’d be turning around and heading in towards land he mentioned in passing that we needed to return because, as he put it, “we accidently went over our time by an hour because of the outstanding whale watching.” Accidently? By an hour? Awesome.
We turned back just as the cloud cover was thickening, lending a chill (and occasional sprinkle) to the air. We tried to make good time getting back to the dock, although the captain did get pulled off course a bit by whale and dolphin sightings along the way. Can’t say I blame him, it was a pretty perfect day – one that I am ready to repeat (and recommend) anytime.
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