Thar she blows! That's the call of the sea now through April as California gray whales cruise past the Southland coast on the longest-known migration of any mammal on earth.
From their summer home in the Bering Sea, the likable leviathans annually make a 10,000-mile round-trip excursion to their breeding and calving grounds in the lagoons of Baja.
In earlier times, harpooning whalers made the trek a dangerous one for the gray whales and almost caused their extinction. The 40-foot, 40-ton creatures are now protected by law and the only hunting is done with a camera.
Whale watching has become so popular that it's also a profitable endeavor for boat operators; every year the public spends more than $2.5 million for excursion tickets to witness the migration from ocean-going vessels.
In the Southland, whale watchers have a choice of daily departures from 10 ports. The boats vary from triple-deck Catalina ferries to sailing schooners and sportfishing vessels. This year at San Pedro you can also board a sightseeing helicopter for aerial observation of the whales.
Here is a port-by-port summary of public (non-charter) whale-watch outings. Call the listed numbers to make reservations, confirm departure times and get directions to the piers; the area code is (213) unless indicated otherwise.
Be sure to dress warmly and pack a few refreshments if your boat doesn't have a galley that serves snacks and drinks. Take binoculars and a telephoto lens for your camera for close views when the whales spout, fluke and breach.
Most excursions range from 2 to 3 1/2 hours, but longer outings go to the Channel and Coronado islands and to the Mexican lagoons where the whales gather.
Boat captains usually give some narration about the whales and other marine life that you'll encounter, and some vessels feature naturalists or volunteer guides from the Cabrillo Marine Museum and American Cetacean Society.
Surveys indicate that the animals keep farther offshore during the swim to Baja than when they're returning north with their young. With more than 13,000 whales making the migration, you're likely to encounter at least one or two. A few boat operators offer "whale checks" to passengers who don't see a whale the first time out.
San Pedro: Four companies offer whale-watching trips from Los Angeles Harbor. At Berth 79, you can board Ports O' Call Sportfishing vessels to seek out the gray whales at 9, 10, 11:30 a.m. and 12:30, 2 and 3 p.m. on weekends. Weekdays the 100-passenger Sport King and Outer Limits depart at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Adult fare is $8; children 12 and under pay $5. Phone 547-9916.
From Berth W33 at Ports O' Call Village, an 85-foot sailing schooner called the Spirit looks for whales weekends at 9 a.m., noon and 2:45 p.m., and weekdays at 12:30 p.m. only. A complimentary continental breakfast is served on the 9 a.m. weekend trip. Passengers who don't see any whales are invited to return on another trip without charge. Adults pay $12.50, children 12 and under $7.50; weekdays the fares are $10 and $6. Call 831-1073.
That's also the number to call about whale watching in a helicopter. The 25- to 30-minute excursions operate from noon to 5 p.m. weekends only. The $49 fare includes a whale trip on a sailboat too.
Also in Ports O' Call Village at the Village Boat House, a Los Angeles Harbor Cruises vessel departs daily at 11:30 a.m. Weekend outings are at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Board the 102-passenger boat for $12; children 2 to 12, $5. Phone 831-0996.
Nearby at Skipper's 22nd Street Landing, 141 W. 22nd St., whale-watch trips operate at 9 and 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekends. Weekday departure times are 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Adults can board the 150-passenger boats for $9; kids 15 and under, $6.50. Call 832-8304.
Long Beach: Catalina Cruises takes some of its ferry boats off their regular runs to Catalina Island to host up to 525 passengers on whale trips. They are the largest craft used for viewing whales, and their 25-foot-high top decks offer excellent vantage points for seeing the grand gray mammals. The outings last three hours and begin from the Catalina Landing, 320 Golden Shore, near downtown Long Beach.
Departures are 11:30 a.m. today; weekends Jan. 17 through March 29, at 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Trips also are scheduled on various weekdays at 10 a.m. from Jan. 16 through March 27. Adults pay $9; senior citizens and ages 12-17, $8, and children 2 through 11, $7. Call Catalina Cruises 775-6111, 514-3838 or (714) 527-7111.
Also from Long Beach Harbor, Queen's Wharf Sportfishing sets sail for whales at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily. The 80- to 120-passenger vessels depart from Berth 55 off Pico Avenue. Fares are $8 for adults, $6.50 for children 4 to 15. Phone 432-8993.