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BEST BET

January 20, 1991

The annual offshore parade of gray whales is under way again, and if you want to see it you will have to catch a boat. Commercial whale-watching vessels depart daily from several locations in Long Beach, including the civic marinas, and from Long Beach and Los Angeles harbors. The boats take visitors on 2 1/2- or 3-hour cruises outside the breakwater into the Catalina Channel for close-up looks at the whales on their way south for the winter.

Each year, an estimated 15,000 Pacific gray whales make the 12,000-mile round-trip to and from their summer feeding grounds in the cold Arctic Sea and their winter breeding grounds in the warm, shallow lagoons along the Baja California Peninsula of Mexico. The southbound route passes close to the Southern California coast from late December through mid-April.

Whale watchers get a big thrill when they see one breach, which is to leap out of the water. But you are more likely is to see their backs skimming along the surface, flukes momentarily above the surface as the whales nose down for a dive, or waterspouts as they blow just before a dive. If you plan to go, take your binoculars and dress warmly.

PACIFIC (CALIFORNIA) GRAY WHALE

* The whale grows to a maximum length of 50 feet.

* It is distinguishable by its mottled-gray color pattern.

* The whale has no dorsal fin; instead, it has a low hump followed by a series of small bumps along the dorsal ridge on the rear one-third of its body.

* During migration, the gray whale will blow about four times over a period of a minute before diving for about three to five minutes. During this cycle, the mammal travels about three-eighths of a mile.

* When beginning a dive, the whales frequently expose their flukes (tails).

* It makes the longest migration of any mammal--5,000 to 7,000 miles each way. Its heaviest migration time is January through March.

* California designated the gray whale as the state marine mammal in 1975.

Source: "The World of the California Gray Whale," by Tom Miller WHALE WATCH BOAT OPERATORS

* CATALINA CRUISES--Three-hour trips are offered aboard triple-deck motor cruisers that can carry up to 700 passengers. Docents from the Cabrillo Marine Museum are aboard to describe the habits, patterns and behavior of the whales. Beginning Friday through March 30, cruises will begin at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for children ages 5 to 11, and $3 for those under 5. Boats depart from the Catalina Landing, 320 Golden Shore, Long Beach. Phone: 253-9800.

* BELMONT PIER--Belmont Sport Fishing operates three-hour cruises through April 16 leaving at 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There is room for 107 passengers on the 65-foot motor cruiser. Weekday tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for children; on weekends, it is $10 for adults and $7 for children. Boarding is at the end of the Belmont Pier, Ocean Boulevard and 39th Place. Phone: 434-6781.

* STAR PARTY CRUISES--From Seaport Village in the Long Beach Marina, 2 1/2-hour cruises are offered aboard a 65-foot vessel that can carry 93 passengers. Viewers are accompanied by a docent from the Cabrillo Marine Museum. Cruises depart at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily and cost $11 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and $8 for children 12 or younger. The dock is at 140 Marina Drive, at the end of the drive and just across the mouth of the San Gabriel River from Seal Beach. Phone: 431-6833.

* SHORELINE VILLAGE CRUISES--Trips start at 11 a.m. from the docks at Shoreline Village near the downtown Long Beach marinak, and last 2 1/2 hours. The motor yacht can carry 150 passengers. The unique feature about these cruises is that the staff guarantees a whale sighting or a second cruise is free. Fares are $15 for adults or $10 for children; a $5 discount is offered with a weekday reservation. The office is at 429 Shoreline Village Drive. Phone: 495-5884.

* QUEEN'S WHARF--Using 64-foot and 85-foot sportfishing vessels that can carry up to 128 passengers, three-hour trips are offered at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily from Queen's Wharf, 555 Pico Ave., in Long Beach Harbor. Fares are $12 for adults, $9 for children. Phone: 432-8993.

* SPIRIT CRUISES--Trips are offered at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays only aboard a 90-foot staysail schooner with room for 100 passengers, and a 50-foot power boat carrying up to 49 passengers. Fares are $13.50 for adults and $7.50 for children 12 or younger. The dock is in Ports 'O Call Village at Berth 75 in Los Angeles Harbor, San Pedro. Phone: 831-1073.

* 22ND STREET LANDING--Narrated whale-watching trips of 2 1/2 hours are offered aboard two power boats of 130 and 145-passenger capacity. Trips begin at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 and 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Weekday fares are $11 for adults or $8 for children 12 and younger and seniors 62 and older; weekend fares are $12 for adults and $9 for children and seniors. Boats sail from the marina at 141 W. 22nd St., San Pedro. Phone: 832-8304.

Source: Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Council.

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