Southern California

Aquarium Boat Trip: Pacific Gray Whale Season

Follow the flukes for some mammal-marvelous wonder, just offshore.

While we landlubbing locals are intimately familiar with the Southern California freeways — their numbers, their nicknames, the fact that you always have to say "the" in front of the number to be authentically Angeleno — there is another freeway that gets far less play during the morning traffic report.

We speak, of course, of the whale superhighway that exists fairly near the coast. Nope, there are no Sigalerts, nor backups on the offramps, because there are no offramps, only plentiful Pacific gray whales doing what their parents and grandparents and whales centuries back did: migrate south to north, then north to south, then repeat, and so on, and so forth.

But "so forthing" a winter season cruise at the Aquarium of the Pacific too handily dismisses the magic of seeing these mammoth mammals make their way to Mexico along the whale superhighway. It's poetry to see a fluke — that's a whale's tail, natch — rise in the air before the creature goes for a deep dive, and to hear the puffy sound of a blowhole exhale is to hear nature itself speak in its own mellifluous language.

Pacific gray whale season is on through April, and boats nicely set up for whale admiring — think an indoor area with tables and outdoor, multi-leveled padded benches — leave daily from the Long Beach aquatic institution. Twice daily, in fact, at noon and 3 o'clock.

How long are you out? Two hours, to two-and-a-half-ish, should your captain want to linger anywhere (humpbacks and orcas are sometimes spied, too). How do you dress? Why in layers, of course, even on the sunniest of days. There's no giant pool-type thermometer in the ocean, but you don't need to consult one to know that the whales, and other sea life, like it chilly.

So when we visit their home — the Pacific — we need to dress not to impress but to ward off the damp. Hats and sunblock, too, are fine ideas.

Will you see a whale, though? Like all freeways, the whale superhighway can sometimes be lighter on cars — er, whales — and sometimes busy. And, nope, it'll never be bumper-to-bumper, like the 405, but if you see a fluke or two during your two hours out, you've seen the magic.

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Even if the whales grow shy, bet you'll spy seabirds and the occasional harbor seal and the occasional dolphin and some truly cinematic swells of the not-overwhelming sort. Oh, and yeah, you pass the Queen Mary on your way out, too, and the massive container boats clustered near San Pedro, so the visual vistas start close to land.

But whales. This is their time, they've laid out their path, and it wends so very close to us. Could we not leave the 101 or the 710 or the 605 for a few hours to see if we see one? While their season is afoot — we mean afluke, rather?

And does the whale superhighway have a number, like our people freeways? And do they, too, say "the" before the number? 

So many questions we have for these intelligent beasties. For now, we'll celebrate Pacific gray whale season by seeing if we can see one, in the distance, doing its ancient migratory thing.

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