Embarking on a whale-watching voyage


January 30, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"There -- look over there!"

Everyone rushed to the side of the big boat, the kids pushing in front of their parents. And there it was: a magnificent, close-to-60-foot-long humpback whale that arched his back and dived, as if on cue.

"I never saw a live whale before," said Jessie Garant, an excited 12-year-old with a Plattsburgh, N.Y., school group.

It was an overcast summer day and we were whale watching -- along with some 250 others -- on board the New England Aquarium's 103-foot Voyager II.

We were in the middle of Stellwagen Bank, about an hour by boat from Boston. Because it's rich in plankton and other nutrients, Stellwagen Bank is a prime feeding ground for whales, dolphins and other sea life. It is a National Marine Sanctuary, and one of the best spots along the East Coast to spot whales.

Thirteen different kinds of whales and dolphins are found here, including perhaps the rarest in the world: right whales; only 350 remain on Earth, scientists believe. The whales feed in Stellwagen Bank in the spring and summer and then travel to the Caribbean to give birth to their calves.

Each year, more than a million people come here to see the whales: In the winter months, another million-plus watch on the West Coast hoping to see some of the thousands of gray whales make their way south more than 5,000 miles from Alaska to Baja, Calif., and on to Mexico. Their annual trek is the longest of any mammal.

"It's great for adults and kids to see the whales in their natural habitat and to realize that many are endangered. Whenever you see something in the wild, you get a greater appreciation for the animal," explains Brian MacDonald, the New England Aquarium's associate director, who also serves as chairman of the Northeast Whale Watching Association. (The New England Aquarium's whale watches will start in April and cost $24 for adults, $17.50

for kids 12 to 18 and $16.50 for those 3 to 11. Call [617] 973-5281.)

In California, many people attempt to spot whales from shore. We tried it one sunny weekend -- and it's not that easy. The kids are still teasing me about when I thought a guy on a surfboard was a whale when we stopped at the viewing station at Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma in San Diego.

"It takes practice," says Larry Fukuhara, program director for the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro, Calif., where an entire room is devoted to whale exhibits, complete with a giant skeleton suspended from the ceiling. "You have to look for the 'blow' [as the whale surfaces to breathe, it exhales, sending a plume of spray into the air]. And that may look like a little dot from the shore."

If you're determined to see some whales close up, he advises, head out in a boat. And there are many to choose from. The Cabrillo Marine Museum, like the New England Aquarium, is a nonprofit venture and integrates an educational component in its trips. (Prices start at $8; call [310] 832-4444.)

You can also head to the Pointe Vicente Interpretive Center a few miles from the Cabrillo Marine Museum, where volunteers may be on hand to help you spot the whales. They've counted 160 so far this season, Mr. Fukuhara says.

Throughout the winter, California state beaches offer a number of programs and locations for viewing whales (call [916] 653-6995). If you're going to be in Northern California, consider heading to Point Reyes National Seashore, where whale-watching seminars may be offered. (Call [415] 663-1200.)

In Santa Barbara, call the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf at (805) 962-0885, a joint project of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

The New England Aquarium's associate director explains that his aquarium works hard on the educational component of its whale watches -- especially for kids.

The aquarium sponsors "whale day" programs in schools, and naturalists are on board the whale-watch boats to help spot the great beasts and explain what's going on. There is a lab area where kids can look through a microscope at such live sea creatures as jellyfish, and another area where they can touch a whale rib bone or the "baleen," the comblike sheets many whales have instead of teeth used to filter food from the water. This spring, you'll be able to hear whale sounds at another station or use a computer terminal to call up information about a certain kind of whale.

Still, keep in mind that whale watches may not be ideal for younger children (you must be over 3 feet tall to even board) because the trips generally last from four to five hours. The younger ones on board our boat -- Matt and Reggie among them -- got bored. However, they loved seeing the whales -- and we saw several humpbacks as well as the smaller minke whales. The trip out was an hour and a half, and the return voyage got tiresome.

"So where are the whales?" Matt asked every five minutes. I wished I had brought along more games and snacks (though you can buy food on board) to entertain them. You may also want to ask your doctor about the advisability of bringing along some motion-sickness medicine.

On the other hand, the older kids we met -- especially those on board with school groups -- didn't mind the long stretch in the boat. They played cards, told jokes and seemed to eat nonstop.

What to do when there aren't any whales? "It's cool to look out at all the rich people on their boats," one 11-year-old offered.

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