Oh Whale

Know how to handle an encounter with sea life.

After hours of straining our eyes to search the horizon for whales, we were on our way back to the docks when the boat abruptly stopped and there was announcement on the loudspeaker. A mola mola fish, the largest and heaviest bony fish in the world, was spotted right next to the boat.

“That’s a face only a mother could love,” said a man next to me, as he leaned over the railing to get a closer look.

Indeed, I pondered what the first sailors thought when they came across this large and unusual alien-looking fish that seems to just bumble around the open ocean, constantly looking surprised. Our guide, James Stewart, informed us that mola mola fish sunbathe on the surface of the water to attract birds that peck parasites from the silly creature. We paused for a few minutes to admire the odd fish and then we were on our way, leaving the mola mola bobbing in the waves, blissfully unaware of our presence.

Earlier that morning my day began in Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach. I spotted a dockside gathering of folks getting their gear ready to go whale watching. After checking in, we boarded La Espada, which means “sword” in Spanish, for our press tour, and boy did that boat slice through the water like a … sword. The twinhulled hydrofoil catamaran puttered through the moorage, and then it sped off toward the breakwater entrance. The Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse whizzed by, and we were traveling at an exhilarating speed as we shot out of the harbor and into open waters.

Stewart, the education coordinator for Aquarium of the Pacific (also located in Rainbow Harbor), narrated the voyage, feeding us facts about the local wildlife as we all peered out to the horizon in search of a telltale puff of mist from a blowhole. He told us that diving and feeding birds are a good sign, because there might be marine mammals in the area. And typically, the birds mean dolphins and sea lions are feeding, which could indicate that there might be larger marine mammals feeding on the same species of fish as the dolphins and birds. The most exciting sign that whales are in the area is a cone-shaped puff of water and air that can reach 10 to 20 feet high. We were on the lookout.

I asked Stewart about safety tips for boat owners who happen to get lucky enough to encounter whales off the coast of California. “When boaters spot a whale on the horizon, they should lower their cruising speed to give the boat more time to react to sea life and avoid ship strikes. The National Marine Fisheries Service has a standard approach distance of 100 yards, and no vessels are supposed to come within 100 yards of cetaceans or pinnipeds (dolphins/whales or seals/sea lions). If animals approach closer or conditions cause a boat to get closer than 100 yards, boaters are advised to use caution as to not harass the animals, and anything closer than 50 yards could be considered a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.” Boaters who want to comply with current regulations should visit nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/ laws/mmpa.

The first sign of life we spotted was a large pod of dolphins. Over the loudspeaker, our hosts notified us the pod had a mix of bottlenose dolphins and the much rarer Risso’s dolphins — whose massiveness shocked me. They looked more like sleeker and speedier manatees, especially because of their blunt faces. I would equate a Risso dolphin’s head to that of a French bulldog or a Pekingese, if dogs were marine animals. Risso’s dolphins also have what appear to be awful scars all over their torpedo-like bodies, which James assured us were only evidence of socializing, as Risso’s are known to rake their teeth across one another to say hello.

Occasionally, other pods of dolphins entertained us with their presence, swimming close to the boat as we sped along in search of whales. We even spotted a few babies that kept up with their mothers effortlessly. Large flocks of shearwater birds bobbed in the waves and comically looked like they were struggling to get off the water (hence, their name, “shear-water”). They made cute slappy sounds as their wings flapped against the water in their effort to fly away. Steward did a good job keeping our hopes up to see a whale; yet, as the hours passed, my hopes faded.

In Southern California waters, on any given day, boaters could spot bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, and Risso’s dolphins, migrating humpback whales, and seals and sea lions. Stewart said, “In the past, rarer and more exotic creatures were spotted, such as sea turtles, basking sharks, mako sharks, hammerheads, swordfish, marlins and various birds.” Recent years have yielded some blue whales.

While we didn’t spot any whales during our voyage, it wasn’t for lack of effort, and it wasn’t because whales don’t populate SoCal waters. It was just one of those days. And a mola mola was a nice consolation prize, a creature that many people will never see.

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