For whales, it's just another day at the breach

It’s a picture-perfect day. Blue skies. Temperature in the low 60s. Horizon as far as the eye can see.

“Oh man, we will have such a great time,” says Caitlin Scully, former educator and naturalist who now works behind the scenes as marketing coordinator with Birch Aquarium at Scripps, during a recent whale watching excursion.

With Capt. Charles Meyer of Flagship Cruises at the helm of the Marietta and Birch Aquarium naturalists and volunteers sharing their knowledge of marine mammals, 57 passengers — from small children to seniors, including some from San Diego, the U.S. and Europe — are ready to embark to the coastal waters to experience one of nature’s greatest sights: the annual migration of the Eastern gray whales, aka California grays.

“Gray whales are amazing creatures, and in my mind the females are the greatest athletes on Earth,” Scully says. “Those ‘marathon mammas’ go on a 10,000-plus-mile, round-trip migration from their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea down to the warm birthing and breeding lagoons in Baja California.

“Despite their crust of barnacles and lice, they are a really beautiful whale,” Scully says.

From mid-December to late April, about 20,000 of the magnificent behemoths make the annual sojourn, traveling 80 miles per day at a speed of 5 miles per hour during San Diego’s whale-watching season.

Whale and dolphin-watching trips can be life-changing experiences. About 13 million people worldwide take these types of trips every year, according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to protect whales and dolphins.

“In general, I think people seek out whale-watching because of the equal parts of mystery, suspense and beauty,” says Lisa Gilfillan, education specialist with Birch Aquarium. “Whales are found in every ocean yet you don’t see them every time you're at the coast. How do these huge animals go unseen and how do we still not know everything about them?

“When it comes to wild animals, especially in their natural environment, you never know what you’re going to get but when they do make a surprise appearance it takes your breath away."

Let the tour begin

As we listen tentatively to the passenger safety rules, the Marietta makes a 180-turn and heads out of San Diego Bay.

It takes about 45 minutes to reach the open ocean. Art Smart, a naturalist with the aquarium, narrates our whale-watching expedition, providing educational information, not only about the whales and other marine life, but the rich history surrounding San Diego Bay.

Highlights include the North Island Naval Air Station, home port of two naval aircraft carriers; Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where more than 90,000 veterans are buried on the hillside; and off in the distance peering through a slight haze, the Hotel Del Coronado, whose boathouse was the first home of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Whale watching 2.0

“How do you spot a whale?” Smart asks. “You look at the horizon all around and you’re going to look for that spout blowing out of the water.”

He explains that the whale is expelling 85 percent to 90 percent of its lung capacity. The spout occurs when the warm, moist air exhaled from the whales mixes with the cold water, causing the blow to be seen at great distances.

To help us identify what a gray whale looks like, Smart calls upon Sally Beach, one of the volunteers with Birch Aquarium. She walks around the boat holding up a model of a 40- to 50-ton gray whale, taking time to answer our inquisitive questions.

“Usually if we don’t spot one (a gray) we throw this one overboard,” Smart says jokingly. “That way we can say it was in the water.”

Behold the whales

About an hour into open water — about 2 miles out — we get a demonstration from a nearby gray whale.

“Oh, it’s right here, it’s right here,” shouts Gilfillan. “It’s right under us.”

Was it going to come up again?

“There it is, there it is,” exclaims a passenger. “Oh, a tail.”

Within minutes, we see another. Then two breach up out of the water. (Breaching is when a whale jumps out of the water then crashes back in again.)

“I would say this was a whale of day,” Smart says with a chuckle.

“There are whales all around us,” notes a passenger.

As we cruise along, another sighting is reported.

“Look down, look down,” Scully says, as a small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins — the social butterflies of the sea — take turns bow-riding in the boat’s wake.

“Woo-hoo,” passengers shout as the dolphins perform acrobatics in groups of two and three.

“They’re like little kids,” a passenger says.

Then, two more gray whales join the action — “blowing” up a storm.

“It’s such a red-letter day,” Beach says as she claps and busts a few moves on the deck.

‘Great trip’

“This is our first time on a whale tour,” says Sabrina Stroessner and Tom Leistner, visiting students from Germany. “When we saw the whales and the dolphins, it was really cool.”

Dawn Garlich, who was vacationing with her daughter Kelsea from Hawaii, says that whale-watching is their No. 1 thing to do back home.

”We always get excited when we see the tail,” says Dawn Garlich. “And the breaching, definitely the breaching. This was a great trip.”

Birch Aquarium and Flagship Cruises Whale Watching Tours

When: Morning tours run from 9:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and afternoon tours run from 1:30 to 5 p.m. mid-December to late April every day.

Where: Flagship Cruises & Events at the Broadway Pier, 990 N. Harbor Drive, downtown San Diego.

Cost: Weekday admission is $42 adults and $21 children 4-12. Weekend admission is $47 adults and $25 children 4-12. Children 3 and under are free.

Parking: Metered parking is available at $1.75 per hour, but there is a three-hour maximum, not enough time to cover the three-and-a-half hour cruise. You can also park at the USS Midway parking lot for $10 (up to 12 hours). The B Street Pier parking lot is open to the public when cruise ships are not in port. Parking fees range from $12 to $24. Buses and motorhomes are $20 every four hours. For more information, visit flagshipsd.com/parking-and-directions

Public transportation: Flagship Cruises ticket booth is just two blocks from the Santa Fe Depot train station and trolley stop.

Phone: (619) 234-4111

Online: flagshipsd.com

What you need to know

  • Be ready to board 30 minutes before scheduled departure.
  • Dress in warm layers. Weather can change quickly out on the water.
  • Wear sneakers or comfortable flat shoes with rubber soles.
  • Wear or bring a warm jacket, sunscreen, sunglasses, gloves and a hat. (It gets windy out on deck; a hat secured by a chinstrap or lanyard will keep it from getting blown overboard.)
  • Binoculars and cameras are a must for that once-in-a-lifetime shot.
  • There is a snack bar on board with items like hot dogs, sandwiches, chips, popcorn and beverages.
  • No smoking allowed.
  • If you are prone to seasickness, or you aren’t sure, take a Dramamine pill at least 30 minutes prior to departure. If you forget, you can purchase a pill aboard the boat. Courtesy bags, similar to those on airlines, are available for passengers. Don’t be shy. Just let one of the crew know if you need one.

Whale-watching cruises

In addition to Flagship Cruises & Events, there are several companies in San Diego County that offer whale-watching tours, some year-round. Here are a few:

Adventure R.I.B. Rides: At the Sheraton Marina, 1380 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego. (619) 808-2822 or adventureribrides.com

Cloudia Adventures LLC: 1403 Scott St., San Diego. (619) 363-1103 or sailcloudia.com

Fun Cat Sailing: 955 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego. (619) 866-7245 or sailfuncat.com

H & M Landing: 2803 Emerson St., San Diego. (619) 222-1144 or hmlanding.com

Hornblower Cruises & Events: 970 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego. (888) 467-6256 or hornblower.com

Next Level Sailing: 1492 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego. (619) 577-4008 or nextlevelsailing.com

Oceanside Adventures: 256 Harbor Drive South, Oceanside. (760) 277-3737 or oceansidewhalewatching.com

San Diego Sailing Tours: 1450 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego. (619) 786-0173 or sandiegosailingtours.com

San Diego Whale Watch: 1717 Quivira Road, San Diego. (619) 839-0128 or sdwhalewatch.com

carolina.gusman@sduniontribune.com

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