Sometimes in travel, the best made plans with the best intention just don’t work out. Whether it’s showing up to the El Escorial Monastery outside of Madrid on a crisp winter morning to find it closed (true story) or a drive to catch the beautiful vistas of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia where the fog was so thick one couldn’t see a thing (true story), sometimes one simply has to make the best of a less-than-ideal outcome. This is a story like that.
Mornings don’t get much more beautiful than a couple weeks ago when, armed with a warm coat and a Groupon deal, I showed up to Newport Beach, California. Blue skies, calm waters, and a ship aptly named “Nautilus” greeted me and about fifty other guests, promising a two-hour cruise from here to Dana Point, home of the best whale watching on the West Coast.
A beautiful morning in Newport Beach!
The trip itself is beautiful, passing the mansions of Newport Beach, the open preserve of Corona Del Mar State Beach, and the hillsides of Laguna Hills before turning around at Dana Point and doing the same in reverse. The blue of the Pacific seems painted in the sparkling morning sunlight, and this morning was no exception. Our eyes peeled for whales, we scanned the vistas to the horizon in search of telltale signs: a spout, a breach, even seabirds circling as one of the marine behemoths churns up lunch in its passing.
Southern California’s coast is ideal for whale watching. Perpetually cool waters create a playground for whales, full of fish and krill. Humpback whales, blue whales, orcas, and sperm whales are all known to gather here, depending on the time of year. But what makes this area truly great for spotting a whale or ten is the gray whale migration. One of the longest mammal migrations on Earth, the gray whales’ journey takes them from their summer waters in Alaska about 12,000 miles south to their wintering waters off of Baja California, passing us here twice each year. In early March, like today, it is incredibly uncommon not to see one or ten, heading back north to delight cruisers in Alaska for the summer.
Gray whales can grow up to nearly fifty feet long, each weighing in at roughly a herd of elephants. So while they are fairly small in comparison to a blue whale (some can exceed ninety feet), these incredible creatures are tough to miss. When one adds in that there are an estimated 28,000 gray whales, nearly all making the journey along this exact migratory path, it can be an awe-inspiring sight. (Some gray whales have been spotted along other routes as the population increases, and one gray whale was even tracked on a round trip to Namibia on the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, but this is their primary habitat.)
Gray whales are baleen whales, meaning that while their size can be intimidating, they only eat microscopic krill – and other small sea creatures – filtered through the baleen in enormous mouths full. They are intelligent, and family grounds can stay together for a lifetime, even after calves mature at around six years old. Most females birth every other year, and nearly always do so at the southern Baja point, the warmer waters being more ideal for newborn calves who will have to put on weight before making the northbound migration in a few months. (Calves are around sixteen feet at birth, and weigh in at a cool ton.)
Sadly for our cruise, all we were met with was beautiful ocean views. Apparently on a day like ours, warm and clear, the whales can keep further from shore, sticking to cooler waters. Great for them, sad for us, and devastating for my story!
No whales 🙁
Sometimes in travel, things just don’t come up heads. And yet, with an open mind and heart, experiences can be salvaged. Whether a delightful cafe con leche in a small cafe next to the closed El Escorial Monastery (true story) or a foggy walk along a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park (true story), one failed experience can lead to another successful one, even if it wasn’t the one intended.
And so on this day, on a whale watching cruise from Newport Beach, California, I didn’t see a single whale. But we did hang out with these awesome California sea lions! Life has some silver linings.
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