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Catch a Whale

Show me your fluke, baby.

People often forget that wildlife is everywhere in Los Angeles, including the ocean. Right out there, mere yards from the beach at times, a vast flotilla of gray and humpback whales migrates past our shores to their winter spawning grounds near Baja and Costa Rica, respectively, and then make the return trip a few months later. All it takes is a few bucks and an afternoon for an eye-opening glimpse of those massive marine creatures, moving briskly along the coast, periodically surfacing to pull up to 2,500 liters of air into their mammalian lungs. Recently, our coastal waters started getting summer visitors too: Balaenoptera musculus, otherwise known as the blue whale. Now, all it takes is a few bucks and an afternoon to come face to face with the grandest whale of all.

“Yeah, man, a few minutes outside the breakwater and you’re lookin’ ’em right in the face!” So says Dan Salas, captain and owner of Harbor Breeze’s vessel Christopher, the sole boat devoted to blue-whale expeditions in Long Beach. It’s been a banner year for Harbor Breeze; twice a day, every day, for weeks, its cruise has come back full of smiling passengers who have seen one or more blue whales. “I saw 11 whales the other day,” Salas says. “Then I went home and saw three more from my house in the Palisades.”

Christopher launches from Dock 2 at the Long Beach Marina, next to the Aquarium of the Pacific. The day I go, Salas is off, and Brian, a beefy 20-year boating veteran and enthusiast from Dana Point, is piloting. Over the years, Brian’s worked up to a 100-ton master’s license, which allows him to pilot Christopher, a rather large observational boat with a full galley and two decks that can accommodate up to 100 people, about the same length as and half the weight of the living creatures the passengers are all hoping to see.

Let’s reiterate some of the blue-whale facts we all learned as youngsters but have since forgotten: They make the loudest natural sound on the planet, a low-frequency call that can circumnavigate the globe in the right currents; adult blues range from 70 to 100 feet and weigh up to 200 tons. That makes blue whales not only the largest animals alive, but the largest animals that have ever lived. (Including dinosaurs? Yes, blue whales are bigger than dinosaurs. And anyone can see these magnificent beasts 15 minutes off the coast of the LBC? Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.)

No one’s sure why, but blue whales started showing up a few years ago. “They’d been up around Santa Barbara for some time,” Brian says as we head out into the channel. “And then one summer, they showed up here.” There are many theories for this cetaceous arrival, the easiest and least factual being global warming. A more likely explanation is that blue whales were here historically, but fed farther out, or were scared off by underwater seismic activity and have decided to return. Blue whales are migratory animals, but they don’t have the same defined routes like grays or humpbacks. In general, blue whales take their action where they please, and where they please is where the krill are, and right now the krill are growing about five to 10 miles offshore, at the edge of the continental shelf, where the right wind conditions and underwater features are causing an upwelling of nutrients from the 600- to 800-foot bottom and creating a productive feeding area. “You can see the blue line right on the chart,” Brian says, pointing on the navigator as the boat slows down a bit and Roger, his first mate, swivels around the wheelhouse with binoculars to scan the horizon for the definitive geyser of a surfacing whale. “That’s their feeding grounds, and this is where we see them.”

Sometimes Harbor Breeze takes out school groups, and when I ask Brian what it’s like to see 30 kids seeing a whale for the first time, he says, “It’s great. They go nuts. But then again, we go nuts too. Every time you see a whale, it’s really exciting.”

The truth of this statement is borne out when Roger spots his first geyser at 1 o’clock, and Brian really yells, “Thar she blows,” and puts Christopher into full throttle. Everyone on the deck rushes to the front, wild eyed and giddy, as we close in on a full-size adult. When we get close, we see the blowhole open and contract, as a big, greenish-blue, slick-skinned arch rises out of the water, signaling a deep-water dive.

Silence, as the overwhelmed passengers wait for something to happen. “The key is to figure out where they’re going to come up next,” Brian says. “They can stay down for 10 to 12 minutes.” While we wait, a couple more spouts appear to the east, and then another to the west.

“Each whale is different,” Brian says. “Some are curious. They interact socially sometimes with the boat. Especially calves. We saw a calf trying to breach once, getting playful. And it seemed like it was, for us. Some are stingy with their flukes. Some show a lot of fluke. The tails can be 17 feet wide. And each fluke is different.” Our whale reappears, and we give chase again. Eventually, the whale slows down and surfaces right by the boat, breaching slightly as it swims across the bow, giving a good, perpendicular and clear view of its eye and huge baleen-grilled mouth. Everyone is rushing around the forward deck, pointing, taking pictures, smiling.

Over the next few hours, we see seven whales, one of which is frisky enough to show its flukes on a deep dive, which prompts a round of applause from the crowd on Christopher. Finally, Brian has to turn around, to get us back to the dock and pick up more passengers for the 3:30 trip.

“That was a good run,” Brian says. “You never know. They could be here one day, and gone the next. But they’re out in force now. Last year they stayed until September.”

Everyone rests on the return trip, discussing their favorite whale moments and ogling their pictures on their digital cameras. On our way off the boat, a pair of tourists tell me they’re on vacation from St. Louis, and read about the whale trip. “We’re so glad we came,” they say. “It’s the best thing we’ve seen so far.”

Harbor Breeze Cruises, 100 Aquarium Way, Dock 2, Long Beach Marina, (562) 432-4900. Whale-watching tours seven days a week at noon and 3:30 p.m.; $45 adults, $35 seniors, $25 children 11 and under (kids 2 and under free). www.2seewhales.com.


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