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Whale watching is huge thrill

Hawaii and Mexico are prime spots for wintertime viewing

SHARE Whale watching is huge thrill
Passengers on a whale-watching excursion in Magdalena Bay in Baja get a closer look at a gray whale.

Passengers on a whale-watching excursion in Magdalena Bay in Baja get a closer look at a gray whale.

Deseret Morning Archives From Special Expeditions Inc.

For a good time, follow the whales. The big boys of Planet Ocean vacation in some of the world's finest locations: the warm lagoons and bays of Hawaii and Mexico in winter, the clear waters of Canada and Alaska in summer. In some ways, they're like the seriously wealthy, tracking the sun to the world's playgrounds.

The phenomenon hasn't escaped the travel industry, which thrives when the humpback, gray and blue whales come to town. Once hunted and killed in vast numbers, whales are now the star performers of the seas. Nearly 100 countries have burgeoning whale-watching industries; only a handful of nations still allow their slaughter.

Maui, a onetime whaling capital, is now a whale-watching capital, drawing nearly 900,000 tourists during the humpback-whale season Dec. 15 through May 15. Many visitors arrive with whale watching at the top of their wish list, tourism officials say. They're rarely disappointed.

"There are so many whales, you can stand on shore and watch them leap out of the water," Wendi Rothman of Seal Beach, Calif., told me after one of her repeat excursions.

I wasn't impressed. I thought of the seemingly endless whale-watching cruises I'd taken off the coast of California in search of migrating gray whales. The scenario for those trips was always the same: Someone yelled "whale" and pointed out to sea. Everyone rushed to the side of the boat, cameras clicked, and children started screaming, "Where is it? I don't see it."

Parents didn't answer because they couldn't see it either.

Finally, a narrator came on the boat's intercom system. "If you look closely off the port — that's left — side of the boat, you'll see what we call a footprint," the voice said. "It's hard to see, but it's an area of calm water. The whale just dove down, so we'll hang out here awhile and wait for it to surface." The boat slowed, bobbing on the waves while passengers breathed diesel fumes and scoured the water for signs of a whale. If they were lucky, they saw more footprints or — more surprising — a tail fluke.

I've been dozens of times, and although I always enjoy being on the water and seeing other marine life, I've yet to bond with a gray whale.

"It's not like seeing whales in California," said Rothman, who takes family and friends to Maui as often as possible to watch humpbacks.

A couple of years ago, I went to find out for myself. The Maui boosters were right. I stood at Kaanapali Beach and watched amazingly athletic humpback whales cavorting offshore. In a 15-minute period, I counted eight whales. Some leapt straight up out of the water and turned somersaults in midair before splashing back down, a behavior called a "breach."

"I've rarely experienced more joy in nature than in witnessing these magnificent creatures breach," Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa told me recently. "It gives you a tremendous sense of awe."

About 7,000 humpback whales visit the waters surrounding Maui each winter to mate and calve after a 3,500-mile journey from Alaska. Their annual arrival makes headlines in the Maui newspaper and spawns parties on shore. "Everyone gets very excited each year when the first whale is spotted," said Terryl Vencl, director of the Maui Visitors Bureau.

This year the first sighting was Oct. 23. By next week, thousands of whales will be swimming in the warm, blue waters of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, a 1,370-square-mile preserve surrounding the islands. Most of the whales congregate in the waters separating Maui from the islands of Molokai and Lanai, a narrow set of channels seven to 13 miles wide.

The number of whales will peak in late February and begin to fall off by the end of March. During the whales' stay, tourists will pump $1 billion into the Maui economy.

Gray whales may be elusive as they make their round-trip journey along the California coast, but they become downright friendly when they reach the lagoons of central Baja.

"If you go whale watching off our coast (Southern California), you may see a dorsal fin, a tail and a snout," said Mark Ryan, curator of marine mammals at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif. "Gray whales aren't known for being athletic; they're pretty sedate."

They're also in the middle of a 12,000-mile round-trip journey to their winter breeding grounds in Baja.

But once they reach the Baja lagoons, they become comfortable around visitors, frequently surfacing near the small whale-watching craft used by Mexican boatmen.

"Being able to touch and pet a whale is an experience beyond description," said Long Beach resident Chuck Cover, who stroked a young gray whale during a visit to Scammon's Lagoon, about 450 miles south of San Diego.

Experts say about 15,000 gray whales winter in Baja. They leave their summer feeding grounds in the northern Pacific waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas in the fall and swim south, traveling 3 to 6 mph. Two or three months later, they arrive at the mating and calving lagoons in the protected waters of San Ignacio Bay, Magdalena Bay and Scammon's Lagoon (Laguna Ojo de Liebre).

Although the Baja whale-watching industry doesn't compare to that of Hawaii, it has mushroomed in the past decade. Many of those involved are trying to keep a grip on its development.

"The Mexican government and the local residents have really made an effort to focus on conservation," said Shelley Glenn Lee of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. "There are strict rules about how many boats are allowed on the water at one time, and all the boats have to have permits."

Lee, like many who have seen Baja whales, rhapsodizes about close encounters with the cetaceans. "We were surrounded by about 500 whales and had a mother and baby with us for about an hour and a half," she said of one trip. "The mom poked her head out of the water, looked at us and then kind of turned on her side next to our boat. It was like she wanted us to pet her."

Whale watchers arrive in Baja on cruise ships and by buses, vans and planes, some flying into Loreto or Cabo San Lucas and driving north. Unlike on Maui, accommodations there are limited, and some tours include stays in tent cabins along the coast.

Many people say that the largest number of whales can be seen in Scammon's Lagoon but that the whales in San Ignacio Bay, 125 miles farther south, are the friendliest.

"The best site is San Ignacio," said Baja educator Estela Parrilla de Alvarez. "It isn't as touristy, the whales come in closer, and the environment is much more pristine." Parrilla, who organizes whale-watching trips to the area, said she knew after her first visit to San Ignacio that she would keep coming back. "The whales are wonderful. It's a very special experience."

In the bays and inlets of Washington state, British Columbia and southeast Alaska, killer whales — orcas — are the draw. Killers are sometimes seen performing at marine parks, their black-and-white bodies soaring into the air at the command of their trainers. The orcas don't usually live long in captivity, experts say, but in the wild they can survive into their 90s. They are the largest member of the dolphin family and are called killers because they are the tough guys of the sea, able to efficiently kill sharks, seals and whales.

The Whale Museum of Friday Harbor, north of Seattle, estimates that more than a half-million people visit the Puget Sound annually to see the orcas. Sightings are most common in summer. "The killers come in closer to shore to hit the salmon as they head up the rivers to spawn," said Andrea Park of the Marine Science Centre at the Vancouver (British Columbia) Aquarium.

Humpback whales are sometimes called gentle giants. Most of the time they are. But some Hawaiian island whale watchers may see an unexpected show of temper. It happened to me in March — my second trip to see Maui's whales — while racing across the waves off the coast of west Maui on a 65-foot catamaran. We spotted two humpbacks, an adult and a newborn. Then more adult whales appeared, and the fun began.

"It looks like there are three or four males competing to escort the female and her calf," the captain said on the loudspeaker. Suddenly the water erupted in splashing black heads and tails. The whales seemed to be jostling and ramming one another. The children on board screamed gleefully as the 40-ton humpbacks slapped the water with their fins and flukes and butted heads. Spray flew.

"We ordered up this whale watch with a little more adventure than usual," the captain said. "It's a battle of the titans."

The chaotic skirmish off our bow was over in minutes when one lucky victor apparently drove the other males off and swam away with the mother and calf.

A few days later, I asked an expert about the peculiar behavior.

It's a common mating activity, said David Mattila, science coordinator for the humpback whale marine sanctuary. "Sometimes those competitive groups have as many as 25 males in them," Mattila said. "They slap, bump and crash into each other to get the position closest to the female."

Because the action takes place near the surface, observers have been able to document the behavior. But for the most part, whales are mysterious. "They spend 90 percent of their time under water," Mattila said. "We just don't know as much about them as we'd like to."