In week two of our California trip we moved down to the Orange County coast and there was one thing I could not wait to do. Go whale and dolphin watching.
California is renowned for having some of the best whale and dolphin watching in the world, with the fantastic weather making it a reliable destination to get out on the water all year round. Between May and November every year the Californian coastline plays host to the world’s largest animal, the Blue Whale, as it passes through as part of its annual migration. Grey Whales are also found in large numbers between December and May and it’s possible to see many other types of whale such as Humpback, Fin, Minke and Orca all through the year.
Southern California is also a thriving home to several species of dolphins . Some of the largest pods of dolphin in the world congregate off the coast here and it’s fairly common to see several hundred dolphin whilst out on the ocean, perhaps even thousands!
We opted for a whale and dolphin watching trip on a calm and sunny halloween day. After researching the various options, I decided to splurge on the money side and booked a trip with Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari from Dana Point. Tickets cost $65 each for a 2 1/2-3 hours trip, with the kids at $45 – a big holiday investment.
There were other much cheaper boat trips on offer locally but I liked the fact that this company had good eco-credentials, a strong marine conservation ethic and no history of running fishing trips alongside their nature viewing operation; something that is found fairly frequently but which clashes profoundly with marine conservation efforts. I also liked the idea of being on a catamaran with plenty of space for guests to spread out in comfort. The final and slightly gimmicky draw was the glass underwater viewing pods that are fitted on the main safari boat.. These can be used for underwater sightings of dolphins whilst out on the ocean. With two preschoolers to entertain for several hours out on the water, these added a little extra interest for the girls, even if they didn’t see anything from them.
Of course if you’re tight on cash or don’t want to commit to a boat trip, it’s perfectly possible to see whales from dry land, particularly during the peak of the migratory seasons. Head to some headland with a good pair of binoculars, some patience and hope for good luck. Of course this may not be so easy with young children, and you don’t have an expert on hand to guide your eye but you may get lucky, so don’t despair!
Our Saturday tour was full, with a couple of disappointed people who had just showed up on the day hanging about at sea safari hq in the vain hope that someone might not turn up. As we headed out onto Manute’a, our vessel for the day, I realised that at 4 and 21 months, our girls were the youngest guests on the trip that day. This did not phase the on-board crew one bit though. In fact they seemed delighted at the prospect of having two preschoolers on board with them for the next few hours! Apparently dolphins are naturally very curious about human babies and girls in particular and having young children located in a prominent position on board can actually help pique the dolphins’ curiosity, tempting them in a bit nearer for a closer look. I’ve heard similar things in the past about pregnant ladies too. As soon as we were give the all-clear to do so, we headed out to the front of the catamaran with our human dolphin-bate, I mean, Roo and Beth…
We had barely left the harbour behind before our captain shared an exciting sighting. A humpback whale had been spotted! It took a good deal of patience and looking out before the whale resurfaced again but it was worth the wait. With adults ranging between 12-16m long, the humpback whale is not as large as the giant blue whale but there is still no missing it! Our whale was encrusted with barnacles. We got a long good look at it as it came up to the surface to breathe before flipping its huge tail up and submerging itself once more.
By this time, a couple of other whale watching boats had turned up nearby. Our captain debated whether to wait for the whale to come up once more or not but eventually decided to move on. The humpback whale was staying down below the water for over ten minutes – longer than it would normally be expected to. Concerned about causing stress to our baleen friend the crew moved the boat on, leaving the other two boats circling around a very blank stretch of ocean for a long time after we left. The crew muttered disapprovingly.
After such a promising start things quietened down a lot. We did see dolphins a few times but only ever a small handful and despite Roo lying nose down on the deck webbing to peer through at them, they did not hang around for very long. Those fleeting moments that they swam right under her nose though made it worthwhile all the same. I just wish they could have stayed longer.
Despite the lack of wildlife activity it was still fantastic to be out on the water and to have such a glorious view back onto the southern Californian coastline. Roo and Beth didn’t get bored although Roo did want to walk around a bit after a while. Beth just loved watching the sea-birds and the waves, and shouting ‘snail’ whilst pointing enthusiastically at a random wave every time we told her to look out for a whale. She is a big fan of Julia Donaldson’s children’s classic ‘The Snail and the Whale’, which appropriately for our trip, features a humpback whale!
Eventually we turned back towards land, with the aim being of trying to see if we could catch up with our whale friend once more. The underwater dolphin pods were opened up, sadly minus dolphins swimming alongside them, but Roo and Beth found them fascinating all the same. It was pretty fun to be riding along underwater at the front of the boat surrounded by glass!
We did get one more brief sighting of a humpback whale on the way back. It was a different one this time (I’m in awe of how people can identify them so well) and once again it disappeared below for long beyond normal. Reluctantly once again our guide informed us it was time to move on. For a whale to be holding its breath for such a long time is not a good thing and indicates some kind of interference or distrust of human activity. Our crew were keen to give it its space. Just as we moved away it came up to the surface again off to the side of the boat. It gave a few people a very fleeting glimpse of its tail before disappearing once more.
On our way back into harbour we passed pelicans and piles of sea-lions lazing in the warm October sun. Inside the boat we were given a debriefing of our trip, with plenty of information on the different species we had seen as well as some tantalising background on those that we missed out on. The talk was informative, engaging and most importantly for us, delivered in an accessible way that caught Roo’s attention. She retained many of the key facts about the whales and dolphins well beyond the trip and we had a hard time wrestling the blue whale model away from Beth when it was time time to disembark.
One theme that came up again and again was of concern for our changing seas and the habits of its marine life. Captain Dave’s Whale and Dolphin Sea Safaris have been going out for many years now and Captain Dave himself is closely involved in efforts to track and help rescue injured marine animals. Just the day before a humpback whale had been spotted by the crew that was entangled in fishing line, something that is sadly not such a rare occurrence. As much line as possible was removed from the whale but unfortunately whales do not make good patients and it could not be removed completely. Somewhere out there in the ocean a distressed whale would be struggling along choked up on meters of fishing line. The crew thought it possible that its distress cries may well have been contributing to the reluctance of the whales we had seen that day to resurface for long.
Even without that event, our guide observed that humpback whales in the area have been diving down for longer and longer periods in recent years – a worrying trend that suggests external stress factors. There are other worrying trends too, with that wonderfully warm strappy-top-wearing weather of a late October day being one of them. Sea temperatures have changed drastically in this stretch of ocean over the last decade and it can’t be put down soley to the effects of the El Nino ocean currents that cause havoc here every few years. From their observations alone, the team at Captain Dave’s Whale and Dolphin Sea Safaris can tell that migratory patterns of the whales are shifting subtly, most likely as a result of the changing oceanic climate. Other factors such as fishing debris and increased boat traffic and its noise (proven to interfere with the whales’ underwater vocalisations and in extreme cases cause physical harm) are also having an impact and there are increasing concerns about the amount of plastic that’s floating around in our oceans. Another very good reason to ditch the bottled water and to take those reusable bags with you to the shop next time.
Roo drank all this in, her eyes a little wider than before. Just a few days earlier we had been to San Diego Zoo and I was surprised at just how much of an impression the information about the disappearance of the polar bear’s icy habitat she picked up there had had. Now she was learning about even more creatures in trouble. A few days later out of the blue she turned round to me and asked,
‘Oh Mummy, why aren’t there going to be any more whales? I like whales’.
A seed of knowledge about our fragile world had obviously been deeply sown that week.
As for our boat trip? Well we returned to Dana Point thrilled at having seen whales (Roo, Beth and hubby’s first ever sighting – I’ve been spoilt in Galapagos before) although a little disappointed at not having encountered any more wildlife sightings but hey, that’s the way it goes with wildlife. The crew had done everything they could to linger as long as possible and we ended up out on the water for well over 3 hours. The day before and after our trip they had had sightings of hundreds of dolphins and less than a week later a trip saw four humpback whales in one sitting! We knew before we booked that the end of October is a period of relatively low activity but we still had a fantastic experience and came back a lot wiser about California and the World’s marine issues. It wouldn’t put me off taking exactly the same trip again and finances allowing, I would have done exactly that if we hadn’t been travelling on the next day.
Practicalities of a whale and dolphin boat trip with young kids
Taking a 4 and 1 year old out for over 3 hours on the ocean caused no problems at all for us. Both girls really enjoyed the trip. I think this was probably largely down to the fact that the catamaran, despite being a full trip, gave everyone space to sit or stand comfortably within clear view of the ocean and there was plenty of opportunity to move around. This is not a luxury you get with some of the more traditional non-sailing craft that are used elsewhere for trips. We saw quite a few of these about with everyone lined up uncomfortably on narrow seats around the sides of the deck.
The weather was also calm and warm when we sailed which probably helped too and the crew were fantastically welcoming with all the children on board and made the trip engaging for them – something that I didn’t always find when visiting places that were not solely aimed at young children elsewhere in California. As usual we took our Littlelife kiddy rucksack with reigns for Roo and Beth and also had our sling with us to pop Beth in for extra security as needed. I didn’t ever really feel overly concerned about the girls’ safety on board though. It was a remarkably relaxed trip.
There’s plenty of shade in the covered section of the boat, where you can also retreat if being near the sides of the boat with kids concerns you at any point. The view is still good and plenty of people opted to stay inside throughout our trip.
Our sailing was calm and very warm (think sleeveless tops and shorts). We made sure to have plenty of water, snacks and suncream/glasses with us. We did have waterproof and wind-proof clothing packed too though, along with some extra layers. Even in warm weather it can turn chilly out at sea. I’d also have kids dressed in quick-drying clothes – if like Roo they want to spend a lot of the time sitting on the webbing then they are going to get splashed!
There is the chance to pick up a few essential items and snacks at the shop before you get on the boat. There are loos on the boat although they do require a bit of agility to get to.
If you would like more information on Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari trips then you can find all prices and information (including recent sightings) on their website.