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JAUNTS : Migration of Whales Presents a Sight That Isn't Easy to Forget : This is the season when they pass the Channel Islands on the way to Baja California.

January 13, 1994|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's whale watching season again, but what really are the chances of witnessing that magnificent migration from the Bering Sea to Baja California as it passes by the Channel Islands?

You've got a whale of a chance, say officials with Island Packers, which offers whale-watching cruises out of Ventura Harbor.

"We're seeing whales every day," said Heather Wagner, an Island Packers staffer. On a Jan. 3 trip, passengers saw 18, she said, and one was breeching--a spectacular sight as it heaves most of its massive bulk out of the water and plunges back with a huge splash.

A recent Saturday trip wasn't that productive, but still was impressive. For about 20 minutes, passengers watched five whales cruising the waters just this side of Anacapa Island.

The 3 1/2-hour trip was aboard the Vanguard, a 65-foot boat that can hold up to 65 people. The boat has a galley where passengers can buy doughnuts and beverages.

As the Vanguard left the dock, crew member Holly Snyder said the waters were calm, but warned that some people get sick no matter how calm the seas. For the smoothest ride, sit at the rear, she advised; better viewing spots are at the front and up on the top deck.

It took nearly an hour for the boat to get into the deeper waters between the coast and the islands, where the whales are most often spotted. The captain, Glen Galbraith, first veered toward a group of dolphins a half-mile away.

Slowly, he guided the boat among a half dozen or so Risso's dolphins, gliding through the waters just a few yards from the boat.

"They're not bothered by us at all," Snyder said. "They're putting on a beautiful show." The dolphins dove and surfaced, noisily spouting water. Sometimes they nuzzled each other underwater.

The show continued for a half-hour when Galbraith got a radio call from another boat about some whales closer to Anacapa. He took off, passing Platform Gail, an oil drilling operation, along the way. Near the platform on a buoy, seven sea lions huddled, basking in the sun.

Long before the boat reached the whales, their white spouts were visible on the horizon.

"We'll try to get behind them slowly--we don't want to make them nervous," Galbraith said as the boat approached.

These were Pacific Gray Whales, the kind most likely to be seen by whale watchers locally.

Off Ventura County's coast, the whales are first spotted in December heading south. They travel about 5 m.p.h., roughly 115 miles per day, with pregnant whales leading the migration. By the end of March, when the season ends, they pass this way again, their children in tow, on their way north.

On this day there were five whales traveling together, their twin blowholes spouting a mist as they surfaced for air every three to four minutes. They flipped their tail flukes out of the water before diving back under. The wet exhalation could be heard on the boat.

These were average size for gray whales which can reach lengths of 40 to 50 feet. As they traveled below the surface, they left a "footprint" on the water, a rippling effect caused by the vertical thrusts of the tail.

Enthralled by the sight was Shirley Christy of Los Angeles, who has been whale watching the last 15 years, casting off with Island Packers 30 to 40 times a season. She fondly recalled seeing five mating pairs on one trip.

"We killed the motors," she said. "It was very exotic."

Details

* WHAT: Whale watching cruises to observe the migrating gray whales.

* WHEN: Island Packers offers 3 1/2-hour excursions Saturday and Sunday (some during the week) through the end of March. Departure times vary. Call for exact times.

* WHERE: Island Packers is located at the Ventura Harbor next to the Channel Islands National Park building at the end of Spinnaker Drive.

* COST: $21 for adults, $19 for seniors, and $14 for children 12 and under.

* FYI: Call 642-1393 for departure times and reservations. Dress warmly; consider bringing gloves and a hat. Even in calm waters, the boat rocks and rolls some. The Vanguard has restrooms.

* MORE FYI: Rangers at the Channel Islands National Park building offer programs on gray whales every Saturday and Sunday through March. The free 45-minute program is at 3 p.m. in the auditorium.

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