Hornblower Cruises, which departs from San Diego Harbor, and H&M Landing, based in Point Loma, are two of the many options residents have for whale watching this year. Both tour companies offer twice-daily, 3½-hour cruises and both guarantee whale sightings — or else passengers are issued “whale checks” for another cruise. Hornblower, whose season was the first to kick off on Dec. 11, offers on-board naturalists from the San Diego Natural History Museum, who provide passengers with cetacean information and scientific facts about marine mammal behavior. Rebecca Milkey, director of marketing for Hornblower, said the company starts earlier than most because whales have often been sighted during this period in past seasons.
“We miss out on some great whale watching if we don’t start earlier in the season,” Milkey said. “We saw whales on our very first cruises last year, so we don’t want to miss that.”
Because this is their migration season, gray whales are the main attraction. But Milkey said passengers can also expect to see pods of dolphins, squid, sun fish and a variety of whales. Fin whales, sperm whales, minkes, orcas and the largest of all—blue whales—have all been sighted recently, and Hornblower captains keep track of sightings of all kinds on their online whale log. Potential passengers can look at http://-fromthepilothouse.type-pad.com/san_diego_whale_watching/captains-log.html to read last year’s log, which details which kinds of species and how many were seen during each cruise in the 2009-10 season.
“Other whales that we have seen in past seasons live in these waters, but we don’t always see them because they live farther out,” said Staci Shaut, coordinator for the whale-watching program at Birch Aquarium, which also offers cruises twice daily. “The gray whales stay really close to shore, so that’s why they’re so great for whale watching.”
Each year, gray whales undertake a roughly 12,000-mile, round-trip migration from the frigid Bering Sea to the warm lagoons of Baja California. Between mid-December to mid-April, more than 20,000 whales make the trip as temperatures drop and ice covers much of their food sources up north. Females go to give birth to their calves in the lagoons and mature whales go to mate. For San Diegans, it’s a chance to witness this phenomenon that comes around only once a year.
Other options around the city include Seaforth Sportfishing, which offers smaller cruises, and Hike, Bike, Kayak in La Jolla, which takes a few brave souls out in kayaks to view the whales up close and personal. Dylan Edwards, a former guide for Hike, Bike, Kayak, said that though it may seem like a risky endeavor, being on the same level as the whales is quite a thrill.
“Obviously in a kayak, you’re not as fast as you are in a boat,” he said. “On other boats, you’re out there with about 300 other people, but on a kayak, everything is peaceful and quiet. You just hear the spray of the whales. It’s really intimate. I don’t know if it’s ever been scary, but it’s very exciting.”
This year, like every year, scientists are not sure what to expect from the migrating giants. In recent years, some experts have observed a later start and end date for the gray whale migration. Wayne Perryman, of the Cetacean Health and Life History Program at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said this pattern of later migrations started in the 1980s, when the peak of the gray whales’ journey was in late January. Now, he says, it is in early January. Though he and other scientists are reluctant to attribute this to any one cause, theories abound. One possible hypothesis is that as temperatures rise and arctic ice doesn’t form until later in the season, gray whales may stay up north longer until their food gets scarce.
“The two symptoms we’re seeing is a later arrival here in Southern California and more calves being born farther north,” said Perryman. “Really, the whole arctic system is changing, and they’re very adaptable animals, so there are going to be shifts [in their behavior]. What the cause is, it’s tough to say.”
WHALE OF A JOURNEY
• Birch Aquarium with Harbor Excursions: departing at 9:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. from Dec. 26 to April 3, (619) 234-4111, www.sdhe.com, $30 weekdays and $35 weekends (discounts for children, seniors and military)
• Hornblower Cruises: departing at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. from Dec. 11 to April 17, (619) 686-8715, www.hornblower.com, $34 weekdays and $39 weekends for adults, $17 weekdays and $19.50 weekends for children
• Seaforth Sportfishing: departing twice daily from Dec. 26 to March 31, (619) 224-3383, www.seaforthlanding.com, $34 adults
• H & M Landing: 3-hour cruises departing at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. from mid-December through mid-March, and 6-hour cruises to Coronado Islands departing at 10 a.m., (619) 222-1144, www.hmlanding.com, $25 adults, $20 juniors and $17.50 children ($50 for 6-hour cruises)
• Barnstorming Adventures: biplane, air combat and warbird flights, including whale watching; cost varies, (760) 930-0903
• Hike Bike Kayak Sports: departing at 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. from December through March, (866) 425-2925, www.hikebikekayak.com, single-person kayak $60, tandem kayaks $55 per person
• Birch Aquarium: excursions of four, five or six days following the whales down to their birthing grounds in the lagoons of Baja California, (800) 661-1325, www.andiamo-travel.com, $590-$1,095
• H&M Landing: trips of nine or 11 days, (619) 226-1729 or (619) 226-8224, cost varies