Friday, December 30, 2011

The whales and dolphins of December

The day after Christmas our daughter and I went on a whalewatch naturalist training cruise. The cruise introduces new whalewatch naturalists on what they may be asked to do on a cruise during the upcoming whalewatch season. These would include a "dock talk" (give a little lecture about what passengers may see during a cruise), speaking on the ship's microphone, and show pictures of various whales, dolphins, and other animals that live or pass through Santa Monica bay.

This year's trip was particularly amazing for the number of whales we saw during the three-hour-plus trip: 1 fin whale and 11 gray whales. This may be due to the record number of southbound gray whales seen this December. And you could not ask for better conditions under which to go on a whalewatch cruise: the sky was bright blue; the seas were calm; there was very little wind.

Within 45 minutes of our leaving the dock, and just two-and-a-half miles off the coast, we spotted a fin whale headed away from the coast. It first appeared close to our starboard side, then dove, and reappeared far on our port side. I was on the wrong side of the boat when it first appeared; I had to settle taking a few pictures when it reappeared:


I should note that we (and anyone else, for that matter) must not approach it and get closer than 100 yards; if it had approached us and we ended up being closer than that distance, that's permissible. So no chasing them in your jetski, kayak, pleasure craft, or whatever -- keep a respectful distance away.

We soon spotted pods of common dolphin ahead of us, so we steamed in their general direction. They will come and ride the boat's bow wave, or swim alongside.


To be honest, while one can't help but be impressed by a whale's size, dolphins (for me) are much more fun to watch. We noted that there appeared to be a large number of dolphins calves in these pods.

We headed south towards Point Vicente. Once there we saw a mother gray whale with her calf very close to shore where the Interpretive Center stands.


They were swimming south at a very leisurely pace. Knowing the characteristics of their swimming behavior, and provided you're close enough, you can easily get a picture of their flukes:


We motored just off Point Vicente for awhile looking for the next whale. At one point, there were so many common dolphin and gray whales around the boat that it was a problem trying to decide what animal to look at. We had a TV reporter, his cameraman, and press photographers from two different newspapers looking in all directions and taking it all in. Bernardo was interviewed by the TV reporter; the story was later broadcast on the 5pm news.


At this point it was time to turn around and head back to the dock...whereupon we shortly came across more common dolphin:






At the end of the trip we all agreed that it had been a fantastic way to start off the 2011-2012 whalewatch season. In the future I'll be posting more photos from the trips I take as a naturalist.

(Shot with the Nikon D300 using the 18-200mm zoom; shutter-priority mode; shutter speed set to 1/1250 second; matrix-metered; daylight white balance; normal JPG.)


  1. What a fantastic trip! I am green with envy over all that blue! I love that shot from above that shows the water texture on the dolphins just under the surface! Wow! That is just an amazing capture!

  2. Beautiful pictures! What an amazing thing to see!

  3. How fun! Can't wait to hear about your adventures being a naturalist.

  4. @carrie: i just added a little more black when i looked at the picture's histogram. but not so much black that it would start "clipping" and make things too dark.

    @hiking: thank you! if ever you're in los angeles you ought to go on a whalewatch trip.

    @lori: this will be my second year volunteering as a naturalist. i'm still amazed that there is this richness of wildlife just a couple of miles offshore from a city of at least a bazillion people.

  5. Looking forward to more pics from future trips. Really like the last family pod picture. That clear blue water is so much better than the green algae water of the East Coast.

  6. Great photos! I love dolphins! I have not been whale watching but may have to do that some time. Looking forward to the future photos!

  7. trina, check out this earlier post of mine about a whalewatching trip i took -->

  8. Really brilliant shots of the dolphins under the water. Lovely photography.

  9. thank you! i'll be taking more photos on future whalewatching tours where i've signed up as a naturalist. but i have to be sure to let the passengers get their photos first. :)