Whale Watching

Whale watching. Who doesn’t wish to see the large mammals of the sea?! Who wants to be as far away from them as is possible? I used to be a member of the first group and now I’m becoming a member of the latter.

I’ve been on a couple of whale watching trips out of Dana Point in Southern California and another out of Monterey. The giants of the deep made their appearances and were rather inspiring. When I lived on the Sonoma coast, it was commonplace to sit on my deck and count 15 to 20 different whales in an hour and a half passing by in the ocean on their migration either southward in the late fall and early winter or northward in the spring. I came to really appreciate the whales as a sign of enduring life and a reflection of the health of the Earth’s waters.

I have seen whales on more than 50% of my treks out into the ocean. Just the other day, we saw two swimming across the shipping lane about 5 miles out from the Golden Gate Bridge. It occurred to me that, had there been a tanker or cargo ship in the shipping lane as well, the whales might have been injured or killed. Every year, whales wash up along the coast of California with evidence of having been involved in a collision with a large vessel. I have seen several whales in the San Francisco Bay. I’ve heard of others, too, as it seems that most boaters alert the Coast Guard of a sighting so that all may be advised. Why? Because they’re dangerous. Search YouTube or the Internet and you’ll see why. Whales have breached over sailboats, sunk them, damaged them and injured people on the vessels. The sinking of the whaleship Essex, as retold by Nathaniel Phibrick, and also the likely impetus for Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, is fairly convincing evidence for the fact that whales may intentionally wreak havoc on man made vessels.

In October 2018, I was out the gate in the ocean with a few friends on a chartered sailboat. We had sailed up the Bonita channel which, basically, heads northwest along the coast outside of the Golden Gate. It was hot. The air was filled with wildfire smoke of the Paradise fires. The ocean was flat and quite calm as a result of a high pressure system stalled inland bringing the heat of Southern California to the North.

We saw thousands of seabirds on and about the surface of the water about a half mile away. We knew that meant whales were feeding. Within about 30 seconds, our boat average IQ had dropped 20 points, and we were well on our way! What a treat this would be! And, it was.

I’ll admit that the next two hours were truly amazing. We mingled with what we thought were at least four whales of different sizes. It was quite awe inspiring and, on most sighting occasions, we couldn’t raise our phones to take video because we really didn’t want to take our eyes off of the majesty of these creatures. At one point, I turned to the sound of what I can only say might be reproduced if 100 people would say “Shhhhhh” simultaneously. There were thousands of little fishies that had literally escaped the water and were forming a tower at least five or more feet tall. They were followed by the head of the whale that had driven them from the depths of the ocean while chasing the school to feed. That took place 10 feet off our beam. We had several instances where a whale, larger than our boat, swam along side at the surface of the water. Part of the whale had to be in contact with our vessel. It’s blowhole was literally close enough to reach into with ones arm. It’s breath stank of rotted fish. I only wish I had captured the encounters on video. These were, however, simply just too close. The whale could have sank our vessel rather quickly had it simply bumped us or breached over the deck. It could have knocked off our keel or rudder by swimming closely.

I felt that we were fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with the cetaceans but even more fortunate to have gotten out of the experience alive.

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