An estimated 18,000 or more gray whales are making their annual swim from Alaska to the lagoons of Baja California as Southlanders migrate to local ports for whale-watch excursions.
The watchers may not spot those two TV-star gray whales that were temporarily trapped in the frozen Bering Sea late last year, but there's a good chance they'll see other likable leviathans.
Some nature lovers opt for long voyages around the Baja peninsula into the Sea of Cortez in the hope of encountering more whales--humpback, fin, Bryde's, orca and the enormous blue. Whale-watchers also will explore the islands and mainland of rugged Baja, which has been called the Galapagos of North America.
Boats will depart through April from 10 ports between Santa Barbara and San Diego in search of gray whales. Most are sportfishing vessels that carry from 80 to 145 passengers. Largest are Catalina Cruises' triple-decked ferries that can carry 525 whale watchers.
Excursions average 2 to 3 1/2 hours, but trips to the Channel or Coronado islands last longer. Since whale traffic is difficult to predict, the boat operator decides if a "whale check" for another trip will be given to passengers if a whale isn't sighted.
Naturalists or volunteer guides from the Cabrillo Marine Museum or American Cetacean Society narrate on some vessels about the whales and other marine life. In most cases, however, it is the boat captain who gives the commentary.
For close-up views when the whales spout, fluke and breach, use binoculars and a telephoto lens for your camera. Also dress warmly. Pack a few refreshments if your boat doesn't have a galley that sells snacks and drinks.
Departure times vary, but usually there are more frequent excursions on weekends and holidays.
Tickets for whale watching average $9 to $11 for adults, $6 to $8 for children. Sometimes fares are less on weekdays and for senior citizens.
Call listed numbers for specific ticket costs and departure times, reservations and directions to the dock.
San Pedro: Five companies offer whale-watch cruises from Los Angeles Harbor, with most departing from Ports O'Call Village. The choices there are L.A. Harbor Sportfishing, Berth 79, (213) 547-9916; Spirit Adventures, Berth W33, (213) 831-1073; Los Angeles Harbor Cruises, Village Boat House, (213) 831-0996, and Buccaneer-Mardi Gras Cruises (with weekend champagne brunch trips), (213) 547-2833. Also, Skipper's 22nd Street Landing, 141 W. 22nd St., (213) 832-8304.
Long Beach: Largest of three companies operating whale excursions from Long Beach Harbor is Catalina Cruises at Catalina Landing, (213) 514-3838, (213) 775-6111 or (714) 527-7111. Two others are Belmont Pier Sportfishing, off Ocean Boulevard in Belmont Shore, (213) 434-6781, and Long Beach Sportfishing, Berth 55 off Pico Avenue, (213) 432-8993.
Redondo Beach: Redondo Sportfishing sets off in search of whales from 233 N. Harbor Drive, King Harbor, (213) 372-2111.
Newport Beach: Two whaling options are available from Newport Harbor--at the Balboa Pavilion, Davey's Locker, (714) 673-1434, and Catalina Passenger Service, (714) 673-5245.
Oxnard: Taking off from Channel Islands Harbor is Cisco Sportfishing, (805) 985-8511 or toll-free (800) 322-3474.
Ventura: From Ventura Harbor, Island Packers, (805) 642-1393 or (805) 642-3370, offers a choice of four-hour excursions or all-day trips to Anacapa Island ($31, children $16).
Santa Barbara: This month, Sea Landing's boat cruises all day from Santa Barbara Harbor to two other Channel islands--Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa ($40, children $20). Regular whale trips begin Feb. 11. Call (805) 963-3564.
Dana Point: Dana Wharf Sportfishing embarks whale watchers at Dana Point Harbor, (714) 496-5794. Departures are hourly during the harbor's Festival of Whales (the last weekend in February and first two weekends in March). Orange County Marine Institute at Dana Point Harbor offers excursions preceded by a lecture; call (714) 496-2274.
Oceanside: At Oceanside Harbor, Helgren's Sportfishing is the veteran whale-tour operator; (619) 722-2133.
San Diego: Six companies sail from San Diego, the major Southland center for whale watchers. Operating near Shelter Island from the municipal pier at Scott and Emerson streets is H&M Landing, (619) 222-1144, and Point Loma Sportfishing, (619) 223-1627. (H&M also makes all-day excursions to the Coronado Islands; $28, children $18.) A neighboring dock with whale departures is Fisherman's Landing, (619) 222-0391.
In Mission Bay are two embarkation points--Seaforth Sportfishing in Quivira Basin, (619) 224-3383, and Islandia Sportfishing at 1551 W. Mission Bay Drive, (619) 222-1164. At the Embarcadero in downtown San Diego is Invader Cruises, (619) 234-8687.
Baja Lagoons: For closer encounters with California gray whales, longer trips depart from San Diego to San Ignacio and Scammons lagoons along Baja's Pacific coast. That's where the whales end their migration to mate and give birth.
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