The whales are back. I saw the boats before I saw the beasts: the harbor cruises all making a quick buck by never even having to venture out to sea to satisfy the looky-lous. I knew by the way the boats were just sitting there, inside the jetty, that the grays were on their migration back north, mothers and calfs and yearlings ducking into the relatively safe harbor of the port of Los Angeles to escape orcas, find some shallow grub, and scrape off a few barnacles. Sure enough, a heart-shaped wisp appeared in between two power boats. Thar she blows.
It’s a thrill to see a whale up close. I’m as guilty of enjoying it as anyone. I was out there Sunday morning, right where the tour boats had been. Only I maintain a respectful distance in my kayak — 100 yards is the law — with no noisy engine or toxic fumes disturbing the environment. You really don’t have to chase them: If you are patient and calm, they will probably, eventually come to you.
That happened Sunday. I got there early and paddled out alone, stopping to photograph birds on buoys, to sip my coffee and pour a ceremonial cetacean offering in the bay. I saw blows pretty much right away, but I also saw the paddleboarders and boats that were already crowding the whales. So I stayed in my lane, aiming toward the lighthouse. Pausing in the middle to see if my friend Laurie was catching up, I heard it: the exhale of a whale surfacing to breathe. It was a few hundred feet to the north, but I could see its white back. Immediately I heard another blow, the same distance south. Their surfacing seemed so timed I assumed they were traveling together, probably a mother and child. They passed on either side, heading inland, and I kept paddling toward the ocean.
Laurie caught up with me just before the lighthouse, right after a third whale surfaced in front of us. She doesn’t believe in stopping for whales, and I followed her to the open water, where it was suprisingly calm, more so than in San Pedro Bay. Maybe we should have kayaked on the outside, I thought. But ironically, it’s a lot harder to see a whale out here in the wild than in one of the world’s busiest harbors, at least in the spring.
We had just started paddling back when a whale surfaced in front of a nearby fishing boat. We stopped, and I managed to shoot it in slow motion on my iPhone, though we were too far away for a clear image. It dove, and we stayed motionless, drifting slowly in with the current. They can’t go very deep in the shallow bay so they usually don’t stay under long, unless they are running away.
I was sitting with my camera ready when suddenly the water bubbled a few yards in front of me, and I was looking right at a baby gray whale. It was so close that I had to drop the phone in my lap and paddle backwards so as not to drift over it. I brake for whales. It lay on the surface in front of me, a perfect recently born calf, white as a sheet. Then it bowed its head, diving down again, giving me a full body view from baleen to fluke. I was giddy with laughter, stoned on cetacean: it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I feel like it came to me, checked me out, and went on its way — I did not give chase.
It surfaced a couple more times, close but not that close. Laurie had paddled away, surfing the wake of a passing boat in her slender sit-inside kayak. She does not like to get close to the whales and feels like we are intruding on them. I respect her opinion, especially since she is a first-nation American. But I feel differently. These whales choose a busy harbor for their day care center and rest area. They are clearly curious about humans — I’ve had several close encounters in the the three years they’ve been visiting San Pedro Bay — and I think we should treat them as old friends who are returning to waters that were once full of whales, before human hunters wiped them out. I think we should welcome them back, give them their space, and help and protect them. Don’t run toward them, but don’t run from them either.
I have heard different versions of why they have been coming to the harbor the last three years: there has been extensive pollution mitigation there and they may feel like it is safer than it was for decades. They may also be starving and looking for food; they have appeared emaciated, and some were found dead in the unusual mortality event of 2019. But I also know that scientists have observed some of the same whales from previous years returning. So when I see them, I like to think of them as old friends. Sharing the water with these magnificent, gentle creatures, as we must share the planet, never gets old.