Tammy Espinosa was a real skeptic. There aren't any whales out there, insisted the shy 7-year-old as a whale-watching boat plied the ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula one recent morning.
But a few moments later, after one of the giants of the sea arched into view--its spine ridged and its back marked by white scars left by barnacles--Tammy changed her mind.
"They're real," she exclaimed. "They're not pretend."
As the whale-watch boat Voyager trailed behind, the southbound animal surfaced a few more times, drawing excited cries from the passengers crowded against the bow railing.
"There's his head," someone exclaimed. Binoculars brought the whale even closer for some. Others captured him on videotape and film.
Sighting the whale was the high point of the Voyager's cruise, part of a winter ritual that got under way the day after Christmas.
It's the search for Pacific gray whales as they make their annual 12,000-mile round trip between Alaska and Baja California. The "gentle giants of the sea," as some call them, journey from their cold northern feeding grounds to the warm lagoons of Mexico, where they breed or give birth to their young.
Between now and the end of March, thousands of people will take to the sea for two or three hours, hoping not only to glimpse some of the 50-foot mammals but to catch them in their antics. The most spectacular sights are breaching, in which whales throw their whole bodies out of the water, and fluking--a deep dive in which they show their tail fins.
This early in the season, whales can be difficult to find. Indeed, the Voyager's sighting came late in the trip, and some passengers thought they might have to be content seeing sea birds and a group of California sea lions lolling on a buoy.
But Voyager skipper John Strunk, who sails from the Redondo Sport Fishing pier, said almost every trip has turned up a whale. In San Pedro, the captain of the Los Angeles Harbor Cruises whale-watch boat said he has been getting "significant sightings," including a mother and her yearling calf spotted on the first trip out. "It was a really exciting beginning of the season," said Gene Meister.
The best time for spotting the Pacific grays, experts say, is in February and March, when some will be heading back to Alaska as others are still swimming south.
During the trips, boat captains or guides from the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro and the American Cetacean Society enhance the excitement of whale watching with information about the seagoing mammals and how to spot them in the water. If you don't know how whales filter food out of mouthfuls of debris from the ocean bottom, you will by the time you hit land again.
Cetacean society guide Ken Seward has yet to tire of whales after at least 300 trips. "I always get goose pimples when I see them," he said.
Long Beach, South Bay Whale Trips to Watch for
The following Long Beach and South Bay locations offer whale watching. Reservations are advised. Many have group rates. Soft-soled shoes and warm clothing should be worn.
* Catalina Cruises, 320 Golden Shore, Long Beach. Begins Jan. 18. Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. Fares, $12 adult, $11 seniors 55 and over, $10 children 5 to 11, $3 children under 5. Telephone: 491-5559.
* Star Party Cruises, 140 Marine Drive, Long Beach Marina Seaport Village. Begins Tuesday. Weekdays, 10 a.m.; weekends, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Fares, $11 adults; $10 seniors and military personnel; $8 children 12 and under. Telephone: 431-6833.
* Belmont Sports Fishing, Belmont Pier at Ocean Boulevard and Termino Avenue, Long Beach. Weekdays, 10 a.m.; weekends, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Weekday fares, $8 adults, $6 children 12 and under. Weekend fares, $10 adults, $7 children. Telephone: 434-6781.
* Redondo Sport Fishing, 233 N. Harbor Drive, Redondo Beach. Weekdays, 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; weekends, 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Weekday fare, $8; weekend fares, $11 adults, $8 children 12 and under. Telephone: 372-2111.
* 22nd Street Landing, 141 W. 22nd St., San Pedro. Weekdays, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.; weekends, 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Weekday fares, $11 adults; $8 children 12 and under and seniors 62 and over; weekend fares, $12 adults, $9 children and seniors. Telephone: 832-8304.
* Buccaneer-Mardi Gras Cruises, Berth 76, Ports O' Call Village, San Pedro. Weekend champagne brunch whale watch on Buccaneer Queen pirate ship, 1 p.m. Cost, $28; children 12 and under half price. Telephone: 548-1085.
* Los Angeles Harbor Sportfishing, Berth 79, Ports O' Call. Weekdays, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.; weekends, 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Fares, $12 adults; $9 children 12 and under. Telephone: 547-9916.
* Los Angeles Harbor Cruises, Ports O' Call, Village Boat House Berth 77. Weekdays, 11:30 a.m.; weekends, 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Weekday fares, $10 adults; $4 children 2 to 12; children under 2 free. Weekend fares, $12 adults, $5 children; ($9 adults, $3 children for 9:30 a.m. boat). Telephone: 831-0996.
* General information on whale-watch trips with Cabrillo Marine Museum and American Cetacean Society Guides, 832-4444.