Week Two: San Diego Whale Watching 2013

San Diego Whale Watching Boat

Birch Aquarium naturalists head out on Flagship Cruises & Events’ vessel, the Marietta.

By Bekah Logan, Birch Aquarium naturalist

It’s only Week Two of the whale-watching season with Birch Aquarium at Scripps and Flagship Cruises & Events, but my, what a week it has been!

While hopeful beach-goers worried about a “high surf advisory” for San Diego, many optimistic migrating-marine-mammal seekers ventured onto the open ocean where everything was nice and calm. Along with sunny days on the water, whale watchers were graced with some company—migrating gray whales and other ocean animals.

While most sightings of these amazing traveling whales are those of a solitary existence (gray whales primarily travel by themselves), this week has been a bit different. One afternoon cruise spotted a group of two grays traveling together. These adults were definitely swimming with each other, but there was always space between them, as if they were taking turns leading. While it’s unlikely these individuals had been together for their entire journey from the Arctic, it was clear they were following each other’s paths. After observing them for a while, we spotted multiple blows off in the distance and went over for a closer look.

Finding Whales

This is how we spot most of the whales—the visible condensed cloud of vapor seen after the whales breathe, known as their “blow.” When gray whales breathe, a small pool of seawater is left on top of their head once they reach the surface. This pool condenses when warm breath exits their blowholes and hits the cool air above. And yes, you heard right—blowholes. Gray whales are baleen whales, or Mysticeti, and therefore have two blowholes, the human equivalent to nostrils. The other type of whale is of the toothed variety, Odontoceti, such as orcas and beluga whales. Toothed whales only have one blowhole.

Gray Whale Fluke.

Gray Whale Fluke.

The blows we saw off in the distance turned out to be a group of three traveling gray whales. These three swam very close together while we watched them. They would surface right after each other in rapid succession, sometimes appearing to touch. Although it’s hard to tell from the surface, this very possibly could have been a mating trio, which can occasionally be seen along the migration route down the coast.

After getting some good looks at the trio it was about time to head back to San Diego Bay. It’s always important to give these amazing animals their space, so the boat never stays near a whale for too long. As the boat turned inland, however, those still watching the whales from a distance noticed the two groups merged into a herd of five! It almost looked like a meet-up of old friends as they continued on to the warm waters of Baja California together.

While they simultaneously dove, exposing their flukes, our passengers got a whale’s wave goodbye—the perfect end to a perfect day.

Whale watching coupon

Daily whale watching cruises leave at 9:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. from Flagship Cruises & Events at 990 N. Harbor Drive in downtown San Diego. For more information and to download a $5-off whale watching coupon, visit the Birch Aquarium Whale Watching page.

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego