Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Whale Watching in the Channel Islands

Img51.pngI had the good fortune of embarking on a terrific adventure recently in search of the Pacific Gray Whale.  And it turns out the search was easy, especially since the whales are now mid-migration lumbering through the Santa Barbara Channel from the icy waters of Northern Alaska to the warm and buoyant lagoons off Baja California, Mexico.

On a clear sunny January afternoon, my husband, Bill, and I made our way down to Ventura Harbor and checked in with Island Packers, authorized concessionaire to the Channel Islands National Park.  Although they reported that the morning outing was “a bit bumpy,” there had been successful sightings of Grays making their way through the channel.

Encouraged and bracing our sea legs for the bumpy ride, we quickly got underway while a volunteer with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary briefed us on the curious instinctive habits of these gentle giants.  In December, the whales begin a southern migration from their home waters to make the 10-14,000 mile roundtrip journey to breed and birth in more favorable temperatures further south.  Our docent also detailed the feeding habits of these baleen whales, with broom-like fibers in the place of teeth to act as an excellent filtering system when feeding at the bottom of the ocean.  She explained that the whales wouldn’t be feeding much now, though, since most of their food is consumed in the summer months. 

While we had clear sunny skies on our side, we had unusually choppy turbulent waters and winds to contend with due to off-shore storms in the Pacific.  We would soon find that “bumpy” was a bit of an understatement, but this didn’t impede our quest to find the Gray, unaffected by the chop and not at all shy of stalking boats keeping a respectful distance.

As we closed in on Santa Cruz Island, the Captain bellowed, “Thar she blows!”  We surged to a halt, came about and found ourselves in the path of a Minke Whale.  Although not a common sighting, these whales do find their way into the channel periodically to feed.  Much smaller than the Pacific Gray, adult males average 26 feet, whereas the Gray averages in the low to mid 40’s.  Its dorsal fin, in sharp contrast to the Gray which has none, made it easy to spot.

With the ocean churning in time with my stomach, turning my pallor a lovely shade of green, we ventured on to find the Gray.  We were now right in the middle of the parade route, so a sighting would be any moment, the Captain promised.  “The Islander” chugged along and soon we were in the bottleneck, the area between Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands.  The winds and the seas calmed almost instantly and sure enough, we found ourselves a Gray.  It spouted twice, then showed us its impressive flukes before sounding, or making a deep dive, for about 7 or 8 minutes. 

I’m ashamed to report that the last time I went whale watching was on a seventh grade field trip in San Diego.  Yet, here we are in one of the most spectacular regions for sightings and in prime season.  Boasting an impressive collection of some 28 species of whales and dolphins right off our coast, a trip to the Channel Islands is well worth the boat ride, bumpy as it might be.

So as my color brightens, I find I’m waiting breathlessly for our whale to reappear, which she surely does.  And the entire boat gasps and whoops when she spouts.  No, this is no grade-school field trip, this is a spectacle of grand proportion, at least 30 tons worth anyway, spouting and diving gracefully in front of our boat.  To think this creature will make the sojourn all the way to Mexico, to mate or calve, only to turn around and make the long swim home in just a couple of months, is nothing short of amazing.  We spot another Gray, then return to the harbor.

As we head back, ginger-ale in hand, I wonder if perhaps I’ll find calmer waters in late February or March and join Island Packers once again to spot the newborns making their way to their new home in Alaska.  They say they travel closer to the coast then.  Maybe I’ll see you out there!

FAST FACTS:December to mid-April, Island Packers offers daily excursions from their locations in Oxnard and Ventura.  Boats depart morning and afternoon for 3-3½ hour tours.  Fares are $26 for adults, $22 for seniors and $17 for children.  Call 642-1393 for information and reservations.  Their website, provides a wealth of information about the whales and the other inhabitants of the channel and the islands as well as details about the many island trips they offer.  The website also has informative links related to resources in the Channel Islands National Park & Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

Other operators in the region:
Santa Barbara:
            Condor Express – from Santa Barbara Harbor,,
Captain Don's Whale Watching – from Stearn’s Wharf,,
Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard:
Channel Islands Sport Fishing,

Published February 2006 in the Sierra Club's Condor Call.