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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | JAUNTS

Park Rangers Work Up Whale of a Program

Two 45-minute shows at Channel Islands visitor center cover everything from migration to the animals' near-extinction.

February 29, 1996|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's the tail end of whale-watching season--not too late to glimpse the amazing annual migration of the gray whales as these huge beauties cruise past the Channel Islands.

Island Packer Cruises will offer daily whale-watching trips through the end of March. By that time, most of the whales will have passed by the Ventura County coast on their annual trek back to Alaska.

But if you can't eyeball the whales from the bow of a boat, the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center at Ventura Harbor is putting on free weekend programs about these hulking sea creatures.

On Saturdays and Sundays, rangers present a 45-minute show about the whales--everything from their close call with extinction to the annual migration of the grays from the Bering Sea to Baja California and back.

"It's like clockwork--we know every year when they are coming," said Winter Bonnin, one of two rangers who handle the program.

The gray whales--about 22,000 strong--leave Alaska in October and head south. They are first spotted off Ventura County's coast heading south in December. They travel about 5 mph, roughly 115 miles per day, with the pregnant whales leading the migration.

In January, during the peak of the migration around here, it's not unusual for boaters to see a dozen or so on an outing, she said. After a stretch in the lagoons of Baja, they head back north to Alaska with the newborns.

The whales' story is one of survival, and the rangers talk about the whaling era that nearly did them in.

"Whales have been around for millions of years," Bonnin said. "Humans managed to decimate them in one century." Whale hunting was big off the coast of California, with the carcasses used for everything from lamp oil to lipstick, even women's corsets.

By the early 1900s, she said, the gray whale numbers had dropped to under 8,000. Since they've been protected in the U.S., their ranks have increased to about 22,000 today and they've been taken off the endangered species list.

For kids in the audience, Bonnin uses a rope to show just how big the whales get: 15 feet for the baby gray whale, 40 feet for the adult. Other tidbits about these animals are sprinkled in: The mother's milk is 53 percent fat, compared to 2 percent for humans. They can submerge for up to 15 minutes.

The rangers show slides and videos of the whales, and they play an audiotape of whale sounds. The audience gets a close-up look at baleen, or whalebone, whale skulls, harpoons and netting.

The program emphasizes the gray whale during migration season, but there are many more types, including dolphins, that inhabit the Channel Islands, feeding on the kelp forests.

If you take a whale-watching trip, you're likely to see as many dolphins as whales. On the average, though, passengers see about six whales, according to Island Packer's Mark Connally.

Island Packer Cruises takes two whale-watching trips daily, at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. They last about three hours and cost $21 for adults and $14 for children. The boats leave daily from the Ventura Harbor and on weekends only from Channel Islands Harbor.

The boats can get no closer to the whales than 100 yards, taking care not to bother them. But Connally said that on a recent trip they stopped the boat in the water, and one of the whales swam over and rubbed along the side for 10 or 15 minutes. The animal was a young adult, maybe 30 to 35 feet.

"That's really rare," he said. "People were thrilled. They could look over the side and see the whale's head looking up at them."

Other free programs at the visitors center include a tide-pool talk at 11 a.m. and a 2 p.m. program on recreation at the Channel Islands, both offered Saturdays and Sundays.

Fund-Raiser: "Paddle, Pedal and Pound the Pavement for Channel Islands National Park," a fund-raising event, kicks off Sunday at 10 a.m. at Ventura Harbor. Walkers and runners will do four miles around the harbor, cyclists will pedal nine miles, and kayakers will take to the water. For pledge forms and information, call 658-5740.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Whales of the Channel Islands" program.

* WHERE: Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center, at the end of Spinnaker Drive at Ventura Harbor, Ventura.

* WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

* COST: Free.

* CALL: 658-5730.

* FYI: For whale-watching trips, contact Island Packer Cruises, 642-1393.

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