Welcome Back, Whales!

by Joyce Amaro, LA Stormwater 

It seemed like a great idea. Let’s go whale watching! Countless migrating pods of Pacific Gray whales, Blue whales, Humpbacks – even Orcas – had recently been spotted just beyond Santa Monica Bay. My husband and I hadn’t been whale watching in years and our young son had never been. So, when a whale watching e-mail from Cabrillo Marine Aquarium popped up in my inbox, I excitedly signed us up for a cruise with visions of seeing my animal-loving son’s eyes dance with wonderment when he first glimpsed our planet’s largest creatures.

What I didn’t count on was my son not inheriting my sea legs.  About a mile out of Long Beach Harbor, he began complaining about his stomach. “He’ll be OK. He just needs some air,” I tried to tell myself as our boat hit two foot swells and my son turned pale and green. My husband, who was beginning to look a Ethan.whale.watching.jenabit green himself, took our son to the back of the boat after telling me that he would look after our son and that I should enjoy myself.  Torn, I left them, knowing there wasn’t much I could do and rationalizing that at least one of us should enjoy this trip. I made my way to the front of the boat, planted myself on the bow and held on! The boat dipped up and down over the waves. I felt like I was riding a bucking bronco and I was in heaven!

Thirty minutes into the trip, we intercepted a large pod of Bottlenose dolphins. Collective oohs and aahs filled the boat as people watched the dolphins play in our boat’s wake and jump – almost in unison – out of the water.  I watched, amused, as my fellow whale watchers attempted to get a decent shot all while trying to hold onto the rocking boat and not drop their cameras into the Pacific Ocean!

We sailed on with all eyes on the water, looking for that familiar heart-shaped spout of sea spray. Nothing. The boat’s marine biologist filled the time with fun facts about the kinds of whales that migrate through Southern California’s waters. We kept watching. Still, no whales. We came upon another smaller pod of dolphins, and they, too, entertained us with their acrobatics. I love dolphins, but I wanted to see the real stars of the show – whales! We sailed on for yet another 30 minutes, but not a fin nor a fluke was to be found. The captain soon informed us it was time to head back to shore, and we all realized that we may not be seeing any whales. I tried to not feel disappointed. After all, this was nature and there are never any guarantees in the wild. But just as we all had settled back into our seats for the long, sad ride home, someone shouted, “I see one!” And, sure enough, way off in the distance, almost to the horizon, we all saw a familiar spout of sea spray shoot up into the air…and then another…and another.  It was a small pod of three Humpback whales – the marine biologist surmised that it was a mom, baby and a male escort. While we weren’t able to stay long or get very close, we did see two of them “wave” a final good-bye with their flukes as they dove deep.

As we pulled into Long Beach Harbor and I sat with my “feeling much better” husband and son, I learned something that made the entire trip better than I could ever imagine! We had struck up a conversation with the marine biologist, and as we sailed past the Queen Mary, she explained that one of the theories of why there are now more whales off Los Angeles is that our coastal waters are cleaner than they have been in decades. That certainly piqued my interest! Scientists theorize that Angelenos are doing a better job of keeping trash and pollution out of our rivers, creeks and ultimately the Pacific Ocean and that makes LA’s waters more welcoming to whales and their young.

So, despite the afternoon’s disappointments – a seasick son, a pale green husband, and very few whales in sight – I drove home with a smile on my face, a promise to myself that I would go on another whale watching trip in the coming weeks, and the knowledge that LA’s pollution prevention efforts are making a difference. We’re keeping pollution out of our waterways. We’re cleaning up our bays. We’re restoring habitat. We’re welcoming back whales.

Photo courtesy of (nz)dave.

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