The fog was hanging over the Pacific like a gauzy gray blanket as we drove along California’s Interstate 5 toward Dana Point. Herb and I were headed to Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari for an 8 a.m. sailing on the Manute’a, a 50-foot high-speed catamaran sailboat that seeks out sea life about five miles off the Southern California coast. Every spring, gray whales begin their northern migration from Mexico to the Bering Sea, making it a popular – and hopeful – time to get a closer look at the magnificent mammals.
After checking in and getting our tickets, we walked to the harbor where the Manute’a was docked, joining about forty other passengers for the two-and-a-half-hour trip. Captain Tom explained the special viewing features of the Manute’a – three nets mounted in the forward area that allow passengers to see dolphins swimming beneath their feet and two underwater viewing pods that offer an “eye-to-eye” dolphin view – and gave us a brief overview of what he hoped we would see. He told us that the day before, passengers had been treated to a rare experience, watching a false killer whale give birth next to the boat, with a pod of about 40 adults helping the new calf learn how to swim.
You could see the disappointment on the faces in our group. Sometimes you just miss it by a day.
With Captain Tom on the lookout, the Manute’a sped away from the coastline. The skies were still overcast and the air was chilly, but the waters were calm, a good sign for detecting sea activity. After a short ride, the Manute’a stopped in an area where Captain Tom had spotted a fin whale. Fin whales, he told us, usually stay underwater about seven or eight minutes before coming to the surface. He counted. We waited. After eleven minutes and no sign of activity, he decided to move on.
Our next stop proved to be much more successful. Pods of dolphins were swimming in the distance, and within a few minutes they were alongside out boat. Captain Tom helped the children on board climb down to the underwater viewing station while other passengers went to the nets in the forward or along the outside edges. As a new group of dolphins would appear, Captain Tom would call out exactly where they were – “dolphins at two o’clock!” – and we would hurry to the side of the boat to take our photos and capture the beautiful mammals in action.
Whale activity was harder to come by that morning. Captain Tom pointed out a gray whale who appeared to be traveling with a small young whale that he suspected was migrating for the first time. We watched in the distance, but they were a camera-shy duo, coming up only briefly and very low to the surface.
The sun began to break through as we headed back toward the Dana Point Harbor – and so did our luck. A short distance away, the tail of a gray whale was waving in the air, dipping back underwater and then reappearing within a few minutes. The Manute’a stopped nearby, and we all “oohed” and “ahhed” and clicked our cameras every time the great tail appeared. It was an exciting thing to see, and I think we all could have stayed there until the gray whale decided to move on.
As we approached the harbor, we spotted sea lions swimming near the boat and lounging on the rocks they were sharing with several pelicans. The harbor had come alive with activity since the quiet of our early morning expedition, and these creatures seemed unfazed by it all, incredibly content with everything around them.
At the dock, we were given one of “Mrs. Captain Dave’s famous brownies” wrapped in cellophane and ready for the road – a really nice touch at the end of a really great trip. Whale and dolphin safari-ing is a tricky business. Every season, every day, every excursion is different. Experienced captains know what to look for and where to go, but it’s the dolphins and whales who hold all the cards. And if you’re lucky, on the day of your trip they just might decide to come up to the surface and put on a show.