Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the 2018 California Visitor's Guide.
Although I have lived in Los Angeles for eight years, I often forget that the ocean is less than 12 miles from my house. In fact, I often overlook so many of the things that make Los Angeles a tourist magnet—Hollywood Boulevard, Griffith Observatory, and, of course, the beach.
If I had once imagined spending my weekends learning to surf, jogging on the sand, or peddling a beach cruiser from Venice to Santa Monica, those days were long ago. After another summer without setting foot in or near the water, I considered how little I know about the coastline—not just the beaches but the ocean itself. And this, in part, is why I am standing at Dana Point Harbor at 7:30 a.m., preparing to go to sea. I do not want only to see the ocean from the shore; I want to experience it.
When I initially decided upon this adventure, I had low expectations for whale sightings. Dolphins, sure. Sea lions, definitely. Seeing a whale—or rather, whales—just off shore? Impossible. But then I clicked on Captain Dave’s website, where a link lists their most recent sightings. They were seeing whales, and not just any whales—blue whales.
Thinking about blue whales is, for me, like contemplating infinity—something the mind can grasp only fleetingly. An animal with a heart as big as a car, a length of perhaps four school buses, and proximity to the coast of Southern California? The image slips away. And yet on Captain Dave’s Dophin & Whale Watching Safari, they’d seen blue whales at least 15 times the previous week. They’d seen humpbacks and the relatively petite minkes, too; but it’s the blues that I have come for.
The boat is a large catamaran, with something like a netted trampoline up front where you can lie down and stare at the ocean just past arm’s reach. There’s also a seating area in the back and an underwater viewing pod in the left front hull, where you can get up close to dolphins or whatever else you might be lucky enough to encounter.
Our captain’s name is Tom. He has a sandpaper voice and the kind of salt-cured face that comes from years on the water. When I ask him, naively I realize, whether or not we are going to see whales, he brushes my question off with a noncommittal grunt that I read as a no. I don’t know whether he’s being realistic or simply hedging in case we don't.
We glide out of the harbor past upright paddle boarders, sea lions basking on buoys, and people who seem to me too far out on their rented kayaks. The water is calm, the catamaran a smooth ride, and the sun that kind of SoCal perfect that reminds me to get out more often.
We’ve been on the water for about 30 minutes when Captain Tom slows the boat. The water is churning around us. We have arrived in the middle of a pod of 400 dolphins—twice the size of the average pod, we are told. I am awed by this gathering, and by the crescent arc of the dolphins as they leap with the symmetry of synchronized swimmers. There are dolphins all around us—under the netting at the front of the boat, in our wake, dancing in front of the prow. There are even baby dolphins swimming in tandem with elders—not always a parent but often an uncle, aunt, or older sibling, we’re informed. When it comes to dolphins, it takes a village.
We follow the dolphins for 45 minutes, due to the size of the pod—and because where there are dolphins, there are often humpbacks.....
Check out these up-close tours along California’s coast
Mendocino County—All Aboard Adventures in Fort Bragg promises a 95 percent chance of seeing whales from its 45-foot charter boats (tours December to April).
San Francisco—Tours by SF Bay Whale Watching take you to the whale action in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary from December to March.
Santa Cruz—Moss Landing is a magnet for humpbacks from April to October. Get up close with a kayaking tour by Venture Quest.
Santa Barbara—The Condor Express explores the Santa Barbara Channel year-round, with a focus on different kinds of whales depending on season.
Ventura—Island Packers takes visitors to Channel Islands National Park, but they also do just-whale-watching tours to spot gray, humpback, and blue whales.
Long Beach—Board a catamaran with Harbor Breeze Yacht Charters and Cruises. Tours run year-round, so even if it’s not prime whale season, you’ll at least see dolphins.
Orange County—Whales seem to be drawn toward the tall cliffs of Dana Point. Get a unique view with Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching.
San Diego—Winter tours stay closer to San Diego Bay, while summer tours by H&M Landing head toward the Coronado Islands to see whales, elephant seals, and orcas in a nature conservancy.