One of the most impressive environments in which to see mother nature at her best is that property-value-increasing expanse of blue to the west, and this time of year, it is home to a truly fascinating natural phenomenon. The gray whale migration is once again upon us.
To provide a first-hand account of what one can expect when becoming an amateur whale watcher for an afternoon, The Downtown News took to the high seas aboard the Hornblower Adventure to observe the California gray whale as the species makes its annual 5,000-mile journey from the frigid waters of the Arctic to the sunny lagoons of Baja California.
The most obvious thing one expects to see on a whale-watching cruise is a whale. This, however, may not happen, and most local companies — Hornblower included — prepare for this with a guarantee: see a whale or get passes for another cruise.
Upon boarding the boat, most passengers anxiously anticipate the sight they’ve been promised, hoping they haven’t just paid for one of the few cruises for which the whales choose not to make an appearance. What most don’t expect, however, is what also happens while on board: they have fun, whale or no whale (some might even find themselves hoping they don’t see a whale so they have a free chance to come on board again).
As it turns out, our oceans are chock full of life, and passengers would be hard pressed not to find themselves marveling at all the myriad components of our aquatic ecosystems, however large or small. At one point during our cruise, a pod of bottlenose dolphins decided to join us, riding our bow wave — jumping out of the water, turning in circles and spiraling alongside us for a couple of miles. And while, yes, “whale watching” was printed on our tickets, we were pretty satisfied with this display, whether or not it was the cetacean we had paid for.
Another pleasant surprise: even for locals, puttering around San Diego Bay and out into the open ocean just off our coast provided an unexpected opportunity to view the city in a way we don’t normally see it.
As for our cruise, we did get the opportunity to see a whale. Not long after we passed through the last buoy marking the bay, the captain spotted a spout a few miles out. We followed it, and were able to find and stay with one gray whale (or possibly two — they look remarkably alike to the layperson), which twice granted us full view of its fluke (or tail) as it headed down for deep dives. We learned, both from the captain and from the on-board volunteer naturalists — trained by the San Diego Museum of Natural History — that gray whales breed every other year, and with a gestation of 12 months, the pregnant females heading down to Mexico at this time of year are likely the same ones we saw last year heading down to breed. They’ll come back this way in the spring with their newborns. We also learned the gray whale gets its namesake not from a naturally occurring color. In fact, the whales are born almost black, but eventually, barnacles that attach themselves to the whales scar the skin as they fall off, leaving behind a mottled, whitish-gray coloration.
Whales also have dominant sides of their body, just like humans. Whales that favor their right side tend to have more scarring on that side of their body, and just like humans, “left-handed” whales are in the minority: roughly 15 percent of whales favor their left side.
There’s also the possibility, while out on a whale-watching cruise, that passengers might observe some man-made “whales.” Our ship happened upon a helicopter carrier and a Navy submarine — complete with a visibly happy, homeward-bound topside crew — cruising into the bay.
The views will change for each individual cruise. Some may see one whale, some may see 20 whales and others may see none at all. Some might encounter pods of playful dolphins while others might happen upon frisky sea lions. But one thing is guaranteed: the experience gives locals one more reason to love calling San Diego home.