Let me be clear about one thing: I am no sailor. I could get seasick on a surfboard. So achieving one of the biggest no-brainer Southern California bucket list items - going on a whale watch cruise - was a daunting prospect for me and one that I had postponed repeatedly, shamelessly telling myself that I was concerned that my son might get seasick. But when I heard recently that rare blue whales were being spotted daily off the coast of Long Beach, right in the middle of summer vacation, it seemed time to face my water demons; and I am so glad I did.
I'll end the suspense immediately by stating up front that no one on our boat got sick, and we absolutely did see whales! The even better news is that our experience is the norm on the Aquarium of the Pacific's whale cruises, which are conducted as a team effort between the Aquarium and Harbor Breeze Cruises. Aquarium naturalists accompany families on every trip, to share their enthusiasm, knowledge, and experience - and to track individual whales for a national research project conducted in cooperation with other aquariums. Being part of ongoing research is a great way to experience the whales; these folks definitely know where the whales are and can answer more questions than even your kids can dream up.
As far as the low rate of seasickness? The boat used on the Aquarium cruises is a 60-foot catamaran, which, it turns out, offers a smoother ride than the average tour boat. Weather notwithstanding, the Aquarium offers the best scenario for a successful family nature outing.
We saw and learned about plenty of marine life on our three-hour tour (yes, a three-hour tour...), but the highlight was definitely the 80-foot blue whale mother teaching her 40-foot calf to dive - right alongside our 60-foot boat! There is nothing to compare with the thrill of interacting with the largest creature on earth, and this mama was definitely checking us out. She and her truck-sized toddler circled us carefully, and one had the sense of a good mother not wanting to miss an educational opportunity; a blue whale calf learned a little bit about people and boats that day.
Before taking this cruise, I had assumed that luck played a major part in whale watching trips. After all, how can anyone know for sure where a whale is going to be? Well, these folks have a darn good idea. They had already scouted the area before we ever got on our early morning cruise, so they knew we were heading for a mother and calf enjoying an underwater kelp buffet. We did run into another blue whale en route, and the naturalists also got very excited about a school of molas that swam right up next to our boat, but we clearly had a destination - and it didn't disappoint.
Not only did our captain know how to find the whales and how to trail them without disturbing them, but he and the naturalists could even predict very accurately where and when the whales would surface after each dive. We were taught how to recognize the footprints the giant mammals leave in the water when they dive down to the ocean's floor, and the captain and naturalists would then time the dive and let us know when to watch for the two spouts to return.
Speaking of dives, if you're hoping to catch some of those big, classic, breaching dives you've seen whales do on youtube, summer is probably not the time to catch them. Summer is the season for spotting blue whales, the largest creatures that have ever lived on earth (even larger than the biggest dinosaurs), and they don't tend to jump up out of the water. If you're hoping to catch that behavior, plan on catching the smaller, Pacific Gray whales on their winter to early spring migration. But even without full body slams, the gentle, endangered blue giants are a must-see as well.
The Aquarium's whale trips are not only a wonderful experience; they are also a great deal. Adults pay $60 and children (3-11) $43 for the Blue Whale Cruise, which includes Aquarium admission. And the other thing it includes? A chance to hear an actual sea captain actually shout, "Thar she blows!"
Top photo via Bigstock. All others courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific
Originally published August 10, 2012