Whale watching

SAN DIEGO--One of the favorite wintertime tourist activities in this charming subtropical city is to head out onto the ocean to watch the southward migration of the Pacific gray whales. I booked a short expedition on the biggest boat I could find, thinking the bigger the boat, the calmer the ride.

The ride was smooth as we cruised towards the mouth of the enormous San Diego harbor. We slipped past three enormous aircraft carriers, three nuclear submarines in dry-dock, and a naval base filled with helicopters and odd-looking submarine-hunting planes.

Our boat passed several buoys. Plopped on each were a half-dozen sea lions, up to 800 lbs each, flopped on their back, flippers in air, basking in the sun.

As we approached the open sea, which looked quite smooth, the captain said hang on, we’re just about to enter the ocean.

Within a few seconds, the smooth ride was replaced by a gentle, slow rocking. I became mildly nauseated. Oddly, the toughest-looking of the passengers, a strapping Marine in full uniform, on board with his mother and his aunts, became the sickest. He held his head in his hands for two hours.

Once out at sea, all of us except for the Marine crowded the rail of the boat to look for whales. We went north, against the grain of the whale migration. It wasn’t ten minutes before somebody spotted a spout to the west, and then another.

The captain moved the ship around behind the pair of whales, lowered the engines to an idle, and proceeded to follow where he thought they were going.

The whales move about four miles-per-hour. They come up every five minutes for air, shooting out their old air in a puff of mist and taking in new air in a series of two or three bursts.

Every few trips to the surface, a whale will raise its entire tail fin out of the water as it goes into a dive. The sighting of a tail fin always brought cheers, and we became familiar with the barnacle patterns on the tails of the two whales we followed.

The highlight of the trip was a lucky moment for me: I was looking in the opposite direction of most of those on the boat. The captain was nearby, helping us keep track of the whales.

Suddenly, I saw a whale break the surface and shoot straight in the air. I yelled. People turned in time to see the whale reach the apex of his jump and fall, with an enormous slow-motion kafooom, back into the sea.

We cheered. I didn’t realize how lucky we were until the captain thanked me for yelling. “We only see a full breech once every twenty-five trips,” he said, adding that this was the most dramatic whale jump he had seen in years. Maybe he says that every trip, but no matter. I felt as proud as if I had just gotten an A on a third grade spelling test.

After that high point, many people became bored of watching for spouts every five minutes. The whales merged with a group of several other whales and got a bit shy. They came up enough for us to see their barnacle-laden backs, but they kept their tail fins under water.

The captain entertained us with whale trivia. Once nearly extinct, the Pacific gray whale numbers now stand at 27,000. They are up to 50 feet long. They migrate 12,000 miles each year. They fill up on food in the arctic, and lose 25% of their body weight during the migration south.

After two hours at sea, our whale-watching ship headed back to harbor. The sun set in the west over the endless ocean, casting an orange glow on the enormous palm-topped cliffs which surround the San Diego harbor.

As we hit the harbor, which is protected from the slow rolling of the enormous ocean swells, my stomach calmed immediately. The Marine perked up and ordered a beer. I realized how glad I was not to live in a time when you had to spend weeks at sea to get anywhere in the world.