As the fishing boat Fury made its way along the Los Angeles Harbor channel toward the rolling open sea, Terry Studer, a visitor from Chicago, caught some California sun and said, "I want to see a school of porpoises and see a whale arch, see its grace and power."
Studer got half his wish the other day as he and nearly 40 other people, camera-armed and sweater-clad, took in a favorite show this time of year: the search for Pacific gray whales as they make their way along the California coastline on their journey from cold Alaskan waters to the warm lagoons of Baja California.
The whales proved elusive, even though the weather--blue-sky-clear until a light fog crept in--was ideal for spotting them. But the dolphins--Studer's porpoises--were terrific, more like a college than a school, there were so many of them.
With the boat tracing a large circle around them, the seagoing mammals churned the water, arching their sleek, black-and-gray bodies and sometimes leaping clear of the water, earning cries of excitement from the passengers, who clicked away with their cameras. Swimming swiftly beside the boat, the dolphins were so near the surface that people came as close as they ever will to swimming right beside them.
Aboard the boat, the delights of the dolphins made several people forget about the absent whales. "The dolphins were great," said Eleanore Pollonais of Rancho Palos Verdes. "They were riding the waves."
Bob Walker of San Pedro said he wasn't disappointed because the dolphins were more fun than the whales would have been: "They like to play. Whales just swim."
Clearly, whale watching--which will take thousands out in sea-going boats between now and the end of March--is a take-your-chance thing.
Tim Ullon, the Fury's skipper, who has been on the whale trail for 11 years, said that sometimes the big swimmers just don't turn up. "The morning boat was one whale and a bunch of sea lions," he said. "It was a grand-slam trip." He said the whale migration is still in its early stages, adding, "The best time to see them is the first two weeks in February."
The trip was the third whale-watching venture for Pollonais in as many years. "The first time, it was a spiritual experience, just following the whales, not invading their privacy, but just tagging along," she said. "The second time, there was not a whale and I got seasick."
The gray whale's annual journey south is the longest mass migration of any mammal--5,000 to 6,000 miles, accomplished by swimming up to 20 hours a day. Along the way, the females have their calves. The whales surface to breathe about every three minutes, and they "spout" to clear their blowholes before diving.
On Ullon's boat, the standing order is for all eyes to scan the sea, looking for the telltale signs: the "spout," which looks like steamy water, and the tail fluke, which sticks out of the water as the animal dives. "You've got to be ready and watch the exact place or you'll miss it," he said.
When a whale has been spotted, the skipper explained, he heads the fast-moving boat in that direction. "I try to keep the whales ahead of me, and I never get up even with them, or close to them," he said, adding that the usual distance is 80 to 90 yards. "It's against the law to interrupt their migration or harass them."
Ullon said that the whales, which stick close to the coast, have been migrating for so long that they pay scant attention to boats or people: "They know they're being watched."
For people like Joe Sanchez of Monterey Park, whale watching can become a joyous obsession. "I have a love affair with whales," said the man who has gone looking for whales at least 50 times in the last four years. "I love the beauty of such huge animals, and the gentleness in them. You're looking at God's creation."
If he found no whales this week, Sanchez could boast that he saw about 20 of them a few days earlier off the coast of Monterey in Northern California.
"I'll be here for sure next week," he said, as the Fury returned to its dock at Ports o' Call.