Cruising for a close encounter with mammoth mammals of the sea

A WHALE OF A TIME

April 10, 1994|By Arline Bleecker

The first time I ever saw a whale up close at sea, I was surprised most by its smell -- a fetid, briny mixture reeking of ocean depths and mysterious origins.

But it was the sound I'll never forget -- a great whoosh as the mammoth whale suddenly broke the surface of the water.

She moved with the slow steady grace of a ballerina, her calf in obedient pursuit.

It was only their backs I saw. But it was breathtaking. And with it came a keen sensation of privilege -- witnessing these monarchs of the sea bringing their cycle of life so suddenly to the surface.

On board the SS Universe in Alaska, biologist Allan Schoenherr was explaining to rapt rail-side passengers that the undersides of humpbacks' tails bear distinct individual markings -- like fingerprints. These markings can be clearly observed as they dive, their enormous tails poised upward. Because humpbacks are slow divers (and also can stay down for hours), naturalists can identify individuals as they're sighted year after year.

The annual journey of humpbacks (the fifth largest of the cetaceans) takes them south from Alaska during the months of December and May, to breed and nurse their young in warmer waters (as far south as Hawaii), and then back again in summer to their home in the north. As a result, cruise passengers get ample opportunity to see almost year-round.

Pacific gray whales traverse 6,000 miles during their migration from the Bering Sea to the lagoons in Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The Baja region also is home to humpbacks, blue and killer whales, which frequently can be seen throughout the Sea of Cortes.

Whales are not shy and are easily encountered, particularly during their migrations. Mr. Schoenherr has observed mating whales up close and has some incredible photos to prove it.

But you don't need to be an intrepid adventurer or full-time researcher to observe them. Passengers can enjoy sighting pods of whales from the comfortable decks of luxury liners or from small skiffs that observe 50-foot whales from as close as an arm's length away.

American Hawaii Cruises has had a continuing commitment to saving the once-severely threatened humpbacks. This is the fifth year the line has been generating awareness of the whales' plight through public information projects in elementary schools. But it also puts its money where its mouth is: The cruise line is a major underwriter for whale research, the majority of which is conducted by the Center for Whale Studies off the coast of Maui. Portions of proceeds from whale-related merchandise -- such as T-shirts and buttons -- sold aboard American Hawaii's ships are donated to support this research. The line also holds periodic fund-raisers on board to generate added research revenues.

As a result of the cruise line's efforts, and of lobbying efforts by the center, thrill-craft such as water scooters have been banned in Hawaii's waters during season; and today their numbers have stabilized, according to the cruise line.

Here are some sources of whale-watching excursions:

* World Explorer's Universe sails two-week Alaska cruises, from June 5 through Aug. 28 starting at $2,395. A one-week trip, May 28 only, begins at $1,370. Contact your travel agent for more details.

* Holland America has a naturalist on board its spring and summer Alaska cruises on the Rotterdam, and tape-records whale sounds for passengers. Its brand new Maasdam also will make Alaska voyages this year. Call your travel agent for more details.

* Cunard's Sagafjord claims passengers will see whales on its Alaska cruises, especially out of Sitka, where it arranges special excursions. Sagafjord makes 10-day cruises from Anchorage to Vancouver (from $3,300, including air) and 11-day cruises (starting at $3,700). It offers a 15 percent early-booking discount. Call your agent for more information.

* Crown Dynasty makes seven-day Alaska sailings from Vancouver via Cook Inlet, an especially good whale-watching area. Call your agent for more details.

* American Hawaii offers six weeks of whale-watching cruises off Maui's coast aboard the Constitution and Independence. Naturalists on board discuss such topics as survival of the humpbacks and a marine biologist conducts whale-watching excursions. Call: (800) 765-7000.

* Natural Habitat Wildlife Adventures, an independent tour operator, specializes in nature trips and conducts eight-day Baja whale-watch trips aboard the 14-passenger motor yacht, the Don Jose. It leaves from Los Angeles and cruises Magdalena Bay to observe gray whales. It's just as likely passengers will see California sea lions, which permit people to swim with them at Espiritu Santo Island. All programs are led by Natural Habitat Wildlife Adventures leaders as well as local guides.

This organization works very closely with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the group founded in 1969 originally to end the killing of baby seals. It has since expanded its scope to include whales as well.

Passengers receive advance briefing packets (some 15 to 30 pages long) informing them about the animals and the region. The company also offers Galapagos Islands motor-yacht trips and dolphin watches in the Bahamas. Call for details: (800) 543-8917.

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