Whale watching season has arrived

I’ve seen dolphins before, but this is crazy.There are hundreds of them — the bottle-nosed variety (think Flipper) — jumping straight out of the water, playing in our boat’s wake and just having what looks like a grand ol’ time. Many of the friendly, warm-blooded mammals race right alongside the Dana Pride, showing off for all they’re worth.

My friend, Shannon, and I are aboard the Dana Pride, which is pushing its way north off the coast of Dana Point. The 40-some passengers are shouting, pointing this way and that, and shooting photos of the dolphins that are everywhere.

For a moment, I consider how much fun it must be to be a dolphin of any variety. So far, on our two-hour cruise, we’ve seen common-nosed dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin and now this massive pod of Flippers. They almost make us forget why we are really out here — to search for gray whales.

It’s that time of year again — when landlubbers seek out close encounters with these barnacle-covered cetaceans as they migrate the more than 12,000 miles from the Alaska coast to the warm waters of Scammon’s Lagoon off the Baja coast. And luck is with us today — at least as far as the weather is concerned. It’s a Chamber-of-Commerce January day and the warmth of the sun is much welcomed after our recent cold spell.

Captain Jack Van Dyke is at the helm of the 95-foot Dana Pride and he’s been spotting gray whales nearly every day since December. We hope he’ll to add to the tally today.

In contrast to dolphins, grays are more solitary. They generally travel alone or perhaps with one or two other whales. That common wisdom was challenged in January when a pod of 23 was sighted off of Palos Verdes. It was the largest number of whales seen together in 30 years, according to news reports.

Here are a few other facts about gray whales:

• They grow from 30 feet to 50 feet long (about the length of a school bus) and weigh between 27,000 pounds and 36,000 pounds.

• They have baleen, not teeth. Whales feed by scooping up giant mouthfuls of krill and other tiny sea life from the ocean floor. The baleen act as a filter, allowing water and other unwanted material to escape, leaving the krill.

• They have a double blowhole (dolphins have one), and their spouts are about 15 feet high.

• They spend summers in the Bering and Chukchi seas off the coast of Alaska, where they load up on food. Once gray whales start their migration south to Mexico, they swim continuously and never eat.

• When they reach their destination off the coast of Mexico, gray whales breed and give birth.

• The best time to see gray whales off the Southern California coast is between late December and late March.

After being out for about an hour-and-a-half, Captain Jack returns south and we spot a spout just above the horizon. The boat makes a beeline for the whale, and shortly, we are close to the gray and can see the ridge of its solid, barnacle-covered back skimming along the water each time it surfaces for a deep breath.

Captain Jack keeps the boat slightly behind the behemoth.

With cameras ready, passengers stand close to the railing, trying to anticipate when the whale will break to the surface. We see the fluke once, but after that, he keeps a fairly low profile during surfacing. Still, it’s quite thrilling to get so close. Finally, we turn toward the harbor and in a few minutes, are home. It will be several days, however, before our gray whale reaches its destination.

Whale watching is offered at:

Dana Point — Dana Wharf; danawharf.com; (949) 496-5794.

Oceanside — Sunset Sails; sail-oceanside.com; (760) 207-5572.

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