It's the end of December, time for the annual migration of out-of-town relatives and their slightly larger, less chatty kin, California gray whales.
From now until March, these behemoth beauties (the whales, not Aunt Tilly) will cruise Orange County's shoreline en route from their summer homes off the Alaska coast to Baja's balmy lagoons and back. Whale watchers of all ages can participate in several educational workshops and cruises countywide.
According to Harry Helling, associate director of the Orange County Marine Institute, the great grays are typically spotted three to five miles off the coastline and even have been known to appear in area harbors. But pinpointing when they'll be seen can be trickier.
"We're talking about wild animals, so it's really anybody's guess," Helling said. "But generally, sightings begin right after Christmas, then crescendo to a peak period in late January or early February, slow down, then pick up again in early-to-mid-March."
The average gray takes about four months to complete a trip from Alaska to Baja, generally departing in mid-September and arriving in mid-January or mid-February, Helling said. After calving in the warmer waters (the bouncing babies average 15 feet long), the new families begin their homeward trek in late February. They may be seen in groups of three to five or singly.
To bring novice whale watchers up to speed, the Marine Institute offers a marine wildlife excursion program--three weekends of slide shows, naturalist-led discussions and cruises--at its Dana Point facility (24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, (714) 496-2274.)
The lectures, to be held Feb. 2, 3, 16 and 17 and March 9 and 10, will cover basic migration habits, human impact on whales and an overview of marine mammals on the California coast. Gray whale and sea lion skeletons and the bones of smaller marine animals will be on view. There are tentative plans for a puppet show and other children's activities.
A 2 1/2-hour cruise aboard the 65-foot Cortez, skippered by naturalist Mike Burske, will be offered before and after each seminar.
"Mike is a master at finding whales," Helling said. "He spent about five years doing research on gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon, one of the chief calving areas in Baja. He's very sensitive to the whales and is careful to approach them in ways that won't disturb them but will still offer good views."
Tickets for the Institute's whale watch are $11 to $14; children younger than 5 may attend the workshop but are not permitted on the boat.
Farther inland, Suzanne Campbell, a naturalist at the Oak Canyon Nature Center in Anaheim Hills (6700 Walnut Canyon Road, (714) 998-8380) will hold a free introductory workshop on whale watching Saturday, Feb. 9. Campbell will discuss the whales' homeward journey, help visitors select the right excursion for them and offer pointers to make their trip more enjoyable (see box).
Here are three commercial whale watching operations:
* Davey's Locker Sportfishing in Newport Beach offers 2 1/2-hour trips departing several times daily from the Balboa Pavillion. Members of the local chapter of the American Cetacean Society will narrate and answer questions on board the 77-foot boat, which features inside and outside viewing areas and a snack bar. An added plus: If you don't spot a whale, you'll be given a rain check good for a free trip on another day. Tickets run from $6 to $11. (714) 673-1434.
* Dana Wharf Sportfishing offers three two-hour narrated cruises each day from Dana Point Harbor aboard a 65-foot powerboat that has inside and outside viewing areas and a galley. Rain checks are offered during the first part of the season only. Tickets: $6 to $10. (714) 496-5794.
* The Spike Africa, the 70-foot wooden-hulled schooner featured in the movie "Joe vs. the Volcano," will depart four times each weekend from Newport Harbor. A member of the American Cetacean Society will be aboard to provide pointers and answer questions. Catering services are planned. Tickets: $25. (714) 642-9988.
For general information, call the American Cetacean Society whale watch office at (714) 675-9881.