By Kathy Day
If you’re tired of walking along the beach or sitting on the bluff waiting to see the whales on their southward migration, take a ride with the Birch Aquarium staff aboard Flagship Cruises.
The nearly four-hour trip out of San Diego Bay likely will give you a fairly close encounter with the gray whales which are making their way back to the lagoons of Baja California for their breeding season. And while a sighting is not guaranteed, rest assured you’ll learn a lot about the bay and its environs, as well as the marine mammals that call the Eastern North Pacific their home.
On a trip on Jan. 8 — just two weeks into the whale watching season — those aboard the 100-foot-long Marietta caught views of two whales, each announced by its customary “blow” followed by a quick trip to the surface to get some air. Naturalists and docents from the Birch Aquarium aboard help spot the mammals and share details, enhancing the experience and making it more than just a boat ride.
One of the volunteers who goes on the trips about twice a week noted that the first spotting was likely a female because she was moving at such a leisurely pace – unlike the second, which surfaced more actively and showed its fluke several times.
Visitors from around the world were aboard, some of whom failed to heed a crew recommendation to take Dramamine if they were at all inclined to seasickness. Some bundled up appropriately for what started out as a cool morning, but turned into a spectacular San Diego winter day — sunny, clear and warming as noon approached. Others, including one in a tank top, didn’t seem to mind the morning chill.
Swells were running at about 3 feet with a fairly calm breeze, making for a relatively smooth trip, although crewmembers said the prior day had been much rougher.
While the goal of the trip is to spot the whales, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll see more than one species of dolphin, sea lions and seals, and a wide assortment of sea birds. The trip also affords everyone views of North Island and the Navy’s submarine base on Point Loma, along with Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s research facility.
And there’s no better vantage point for a look at the Point Loma lighthouse or the San Diego skyline.
Trips run twice daily through April 14, weather permitting. This is the 13th season Birch and Flagship have teamed up for the trips.
The whale watching trips and expedition are a small piece of the Birch Aquarium’s efforts aimed at “educating and inspiring the next generation of ocean stewards,” as Executive Director Nigella Hillgarth writes in the winter newsletter. From student field trips to lectures, tide-pooling outings and the Sea Days programs, the aquarium staff hosts a range of events throughout the year. Learn more about all of them at aquarium.ucsd.edu.