Sabine Bradshaw has spent a quarter-century living in San Diego, but this winter she embarked for the first time on one of the city’s greatest excursions: whale watching.
Accompanying her on the journey were naturalists from Birch Aquarium at Scripps, who head out to sea with the public twice daily this time of year to share the ultimate experience of seeing the gentle giants in their natural habitat.
“I could not take my eyes off the water,” said Bradshaw, whose husband joined her on the trip. “It was an awesome experience for us.”
This is the eighth whale watching season for Birch Aquarium at Scripps, which partners with San Diego Harbor Excursion to bring onlookers face-to-blowhole with whales during their annual migration from the frigid arctic waters to the cozy breeding lagoons near Baja California. Throughout the 3 ½-hour trek off Point Loma, naturalists point out whales in the open ocean, share facts about the animals, and communicate crucial messages about conservation.
Each winter, responding to cues scientists are still trying to understand, gray whales leave their icy feeding grounds in the Bering Sea for a 12,000-mile, round-trip swim to give birth in tranquil Baja lagoons. Up to 20,000 grays take the trip each year, the longest migration of any mammal on Earth.
The 50-foot-long, 35-ton whales hug the San Diego coast on both legs of the trip, spouting sea air and showing off their tails, to the delight of those aboard Birch Aquarium’s excursions. Each sighting brings oohs, ahhs, and even applause from onlookers. Lucky passengers on several trips throughout the season witness whales breaching — or hurling themselves out of the water — an extremely rare behavior during migrations.
“The whole trip was such a great reminder of just how spectacular Mother Nature is, and how we are all connected and depend on each other in some way,” passenger Lisa Smith of Twentynine Palms, Calif., said after a recent trip.
That’s exactly what Birch Aquarium Executive Director Nigella Hillgarth hopes the participants take away from the experience.
“Many humans feel a special connection to whales, but as with most marine animals, rarely get to experience them at home in the ocean,” Hillgarth said. “During these expeditions, we can see for ourselves why the whales are so special and why we should work to protect them.”
Birch Aquarium’s daily whale watching cruises run each winter from Dec. 26 to March 31. For a longer and more intimate adventure, the aquarium offers extended three-, five- and six-day trips to the heart of gray whale birthing grounds near Baja California.