REDONDO BEACH — Somehow I always seem to miss the boat on whale-watching cruises. I'm usually on the one where the crew says: "You should have been on the morning cruise. There were whales as far as the eye could see."
That's why I hadn't gone whale watching for a few years; I was discouraged. But I've always wanted to see a whale in its natural habitat, its huge back arching out of the ocean, water spraying from its blowhole. So, on a Saturday in late January, I decided I was going to give the whales another chance. Since we live in L.A., my husband, Geoffrey, and I could easily do the cruise on a day trip, but we decided to make it into a mini-vacation with an overnight at the beach. What could be better than a weekend break from telephones and responsibilities without spending half our time traveling?
Every year from late December through early April gray whales, which can grow up to 50 feet long and weigh up to 40 tons, head south along the Pacific Coast for the warm waters off Baja California, where they will breed and give birth. Every year boats out of Redondo Beach and other Southern California ports run whale-watching cruises that strive to give passengers a peek at these migrating mammals. The trick, of course, is to be on the whale-watching trip that actually sees a whale. The odds of spotting them are best January through March.
Because we had seats on an afternoon cruise out of Redondo Beach, we had plenty of time for lunch before our 1:30 departure. Geoffrey pushed the speed limits to the max on the 405 Freeway in his eagerness for a crab feast at Redondo Beach's King Harbor.
We parked the car and strolled along a concrete walkway, which has a marina of berthed boats on the harbor side and a string of souvenir and food shops on the other. The weather was overcast, but the place was buzzing.
We headed straight for Quality Seafood, which is a fish market and fast-food emporium. At the market end, you select the shellfish you want, and, while that's being steamed, you pick up drinks, condiments and side dishes at the takeout counters. Quality Seafood sells a variety of fish, but the lobster and crab are the main draws.
We carried our steamed crab to one of the umbrella-shaded, concrete tables overlooking the marina, and dug in. A little messy, but delicious.
After lunch we walked to the Redondo Sport Fishing Co., which runs the whale-watching cruise we'd signed up for.
It looked like the old no-whale curse would be with me again. When the morning boat, a double-deck harbor cruiser called the Voyager, pulled up to the dock, we were told that nary a whale was sighted. Despite the bad news, the Voyager quickly filled up again.
We were barely out of the harbor when there was a cry: "Whale at 12 o'clock!"
Everyone rushed to the port side of the boat wielding cameras and binoculars. I thought I saw some movement way out there, but I wouldn't have sworn that the dark gray hump briefly rising from the murky sea was a whale.
Never mind. The chase was on, and our captain, John Glacken, and two well-informed volunteer naturalists from the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro kept us abreast of whale travels.
For more than an hour, cries of "12 o'clock," "10:15" and "1:30" kept the passengers rushing from stern to bow and side to side, straining over the railings for even a glimpse of the behemoth mammals as they arched out of the sea.
I wouldn't call the sightings spectacular, but something about the thrill of the chase, the brisk sea air and actually seeing a couple of these huge mammals in their natural setting combined to make for a successful trip.
California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) were far more visible. A bunch nestled onto a bell buoy. And, as we swung back into King Harbor at the end of our almost three-hour excursion, we spotted pelicans, gulls, cormorants and even a great blue heron.
Tickled that we'd actually seen a whale, Geoffrey and I left King Harbor and headed for Hermosa Beach's Sea Sprite Ocean Front Motel.
It is an architecturally uninspired, no-frills 1950s-type motel that is right on the Hermosa Beach bike path. The rooms are clean, the beds firm, the furniture cheap. But with a mini-refrigerator, microwave, toaster, coffee maker, dishes and utensils, cable TV, free parking and a view of the ocean for less than $100 a night, who could ask for more?
Accommodations at the Sea Sprite are varied, from economy units to cottages, and are spread over several buildings. Our room was on the second floor of a three-story building that had 14 rooms, a second-floor swimming pool, a sun deck and the office.
There are no nonsmoking rooms at the Sea Sprite. Fortunately, Geoffrey and I are not too sensitive to smells, so after a couple of minutes with the sliding glass door open, we declared the room odorless.