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Photos: How to Pet a Wild Gray Whale

Spring is here, but you've still got a chance to see and say farewell to the gray whales as they journey north.

It’s not quite time to break out the tank tops and beach gear, but Orange County is finally beginning its seasonal warmup. And as we landlubbers move toward summer, the Pacific gray whale is also on the move in the waters just off our coast, waving its seasonal goodbye to whale-watching spots like .

Every year these 40-plus-foot-long animals swim past us twice on their 10,000 mile pilgrimage to and from their breeding grounds in the shallow lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, and their feeding grounds in the chilly seas surrounding Alaska.

Because grays hug the contours of our shoreline as they swim past, they can be spotted with or without binoculars from numerous outcroppings along our coast or up close from the deck of a boat.

  • If you want to see how close, check out the photos of me petting a gray whale above.

The grays are so visible they've become something of a wild celebrity in Southern California. However, celebrity isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. The whale’s shore-hugging habits increase its risk of being injured in accidental boat collisions or . This can occasionally result in an entangled whale’s death.

Orange County Whale Rescuer

Though they don’t get quite as much press as Lindsay Lohan, grays recently made headlines due to . Fortunately, there are several organizations and concerned citizens watching out for the wellbeing of these creatures.

One of these is Dave Anderson, owner and titular captain of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Safari, operating out of Dana Point harbor.

Anderson assisted in the two most recent efforts to disentangle young gray whales. When I called to speak with Anderson, he was in the studios of CBS television and unavailable for comment. Instead, I spoke with his associate Jacque Martinsen, who told me the television station is finishing a documentary about Anderson’s life and work with whales.

Martinsen said nearly every season Anderson helps disentangle and otherwise help whales in trouble.

"His passion is whales," Martinsen said. "He’d rather be helping them than doing anything else. If they’re in despair, he will help them."

When Anderson recently got news that another tangled gray had been spotted, Martinsen said, he went immediately into rescue mode despite just sitting down to dinner with his wife. The quick response meant the gray was eventually cut free and able to continue its long journey north. 

It seems Anderson’s efforts have brought him far more than the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. In addition to CBS’s upcoming documentary, Anderson’s work has attracted the attention of talk show host Ellen Degeneres, who featured him on a recent episode of her television show.

O.C. Whale Fest

Among other distinctions, for the past 41 years the Dana Point Festival of Whales has sought to honor and celebrate the gray’s annual passage, along with all the other whale species that regularly visit our corner of the Pacific.

Penny Elia organizes the annual event, which occurs over two consecutive weekends in early March. Past estimates have put the number of visitors around 100,000, but that's nothing compared to this year, Elia said.

"This year’s festival broke all records," she said. "I’ve never seen so many people with smiles on their faces at one time."

Multi-hour whale watching tours can be booked through various providers in Dana Point harbor nearly all year round. Depending on the season, expect to see many different species of whale, including dolphins, fin whales, and the enormous blue whale. In fact, blue whale season overlaps conveniently with that of the grays. Several tour operators have already reported their first sightings of blues.  

So, if you haven’t been out on the water lately, you might consider planning a trip, and soon. Those hoping for a chance to spot gray whales making their northern passage can expect to continue seeing them through early May. Of course, the sighting of any whale cannot be guaranteed--they keep their own loose schedules--but it is partly this element of flukiness that makes sighting one of these ocean mammoths so special.

For more whale-related stories click these links:

Dan Krolczyk April 16, 2012 at 03:41 PM
We enjoyed seeing a pair of fin whales last week off Dana Point. Amazing beasts.
Heather Pritchard April 16, 2012 at 06:00 PM
My daughter and I so want to do this, but it is not inexpensive. We just can't wait though, we go whale watching at least twice a year and wish we could go more :)
Martin Henderson April 17, 2012 at 07:40 AM
Picture No. 5 is awesome.
Laura O'Donnell Bloom April 17, 2012 at 05:33 PM
Heather, Dana Wharf offers 1/2 price whale watching on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the month of April. It is $16 per person and worth every penny!
Lou Douros April 18, 2012 at 03:28 AM
Be part of the solution. Help produce the next film about whale disentanglement. www.northernwake.com a kickstarter project to be filmed this summer in Alaska!

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