Just a few hundred metres off the coast of Los Angeles are some of the ocean’s biggest and most captivating creatures. Who knew?? Well, locals and marine biologists might, but I certainly didn’t. It seemed strange to me that such incredible marine life would come this close to the shore of the United States’ second biggest city, but three hours on a boat was all it took to think otherwise.
This week I hopped aboard to join the Newport Bay Whale Watching experience, and I’m happy to say it lived up to expectations. Not only were we lucky enough to see several grey whales, but we also had some (appropriately) close encounters with dolphins and sea lions.
Our trip began on a brisk January morning at Balboa Pavilion, Newport Bay, The sky was blue and the wind was cold, but it was sunny and bright – fine conditions for whale watching (so I was told). The first part of the cruise takes you past huge houses with even bigger yachts outside, which was an experience in itself. But we weren’t here to look at houses, and it didn’t take long to spot our first animal.
After about 20 minutes the boat pulled up to an ocean buoy where a group a sea lions were basking in the sun. We gawked at them as they sunbathed on oblivious, just minding their own sea lion business and occasionally barking in that hilarious way sea lions do. It looked like they had a great life – just lying there in the sun, chilling out, occasionally flopping into the water for a brief refresher. I felt rather envious
Once we’d got our fill of sea lions we moved further out and it wasn’t long before we heard the shouts of our guide: “Quick! Dolphins at 12 o’clock!” Sure enough, swimming in front of us and leaping in and out of the water was a school of common dolphins.
For a while all you could hear was enthusiastic squeals and the clicks of dozens of cameras (dolphins are ridiculously quick though – I took about 500 photos and still couldn’t get a clear shot of them jumping out the water). More and more of them came over to us, and soon they were swimming alongside the boat. We all got very excited.
“I don’t care if I see the whales, I’ve seen the dolphins and can die happy now,” one woman next to me said loudly. That was nice for her, but I still desperately wanted to see the whales – otherwise I would have gone on a dolphin-watching cruise (duh). But while spotting sea lions and dolphins is almost guaranteed, whales prove more reclusive and a sighting is by no means a sure thing. We were already fortunate to have gorgeous weather and had checked off both sea lions and dolphins – would we be lucky enough to see the whales too?
WE WOULD! We’d been on the boat almost an hour before we heard our guide say, “Whale ahead! Whale at 12 o’clock!” Far in front of us we could see identical ripples moving across the surface of the ocean: not one, but two whales swimming just below the surface.
Being experts in their field, the guides were able to accurately guess how long the whales would stay under water for and when they would surface for air. This was brilliant for us, as every few minutes they’d give us a warning and we’d get our cameras ready, and then these giant creatures would emerge oh-so-briefly from the ocean, before diving down once more.
We all wanted that iconic shot of the whale’s tail poking out of the water as they dived down. Thankfully, the guides knew by the whale’s position whether or not their tails would crest, and they let us know to the very second it would appear. “Get ready for the tail crest… three, two, one… there it is!” I got the shot thanks to the guides. Yes!
As we were snapping away, we heard another shout from the guide. There was a third whale! It was generally quite exhilarating. We were really quite close to the shore, so it was quite startling to see whales that far in. Once we were certain we’d taken enough photos, the boat turned around and we left the whales to it. Now we’d seen them and got photographic evidence, we were able to sit back and relax for the journey back, and just enjoy the ride.
I won’t forget the thrill of spotting whales in their natural environment, and thanks to our awesome guides I got the pictures I wanted too. All in all, I can’t imagine a better way to spend a sunny January morning around the Los Angeles area.