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All Aboard! A Whale Watching Field Guide
Hello my name is Etai Timna, a volunteer at the Channel
Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
I thought I would share a few tips for successfully spotting whales in the wild.
The first step is to find a knowledgeable captain that can drive a boat and safely
maneuver you through the ocean. (Taking a boat is the easier way; one could also
wait a long time on shore hoping to spot a whale.) Once you are settled and onboard
the excitement begins.
Gray whales often follow the contour on the bottom of the ocean floor. Although the
ocean seems flat and unchanging from the surface, the sea floor can have lots of
twists and turns. There can even be naturally formed channels that curve for many
miles on the bottom of the ocean. The whales are very keen at picking up these channels,
and they will often use them as highways for their journey north. So, the first step
is position the boat in this area where the whales are most likely to travel.
Now that we have positioned the boat near the whale's preferred path, we must carefully
look around to see some of the telltale signs of a whale's presence. The first sign
that a whale is in the area is often a spout, or a burst of mist rising from a whale's
blowhole. When a whale takes in a breath, it consumes large amounts of air. Some
of the water in the air condenses (like water on the outside of a cold soda can)
while it is inside the whale's lungs, so when the whale exhales as he or she reaches
the surface, a large spray shoots out of the ocean. The spray can be quite high,
and can be seen over a large distance. The spray from a Gray Whale is often shaped
like a heart, so one can distinguish the spout from that of a different species of
The tough part here is that a whale usually comes to the surface every 3 to 5 minutes,
but it can hold its breath up to 20 minutes. Because the whale can spend so much
time under water, the person looking must constantly scan the horizon for the spout
from the blowhole.
There is no way to guarantee spotting a whale while looking for one in the wild.
Traveling outdoors is not like turning on your television set. The whales can be
very clever and sometimes alter their direction or surface behind you, but a little
patience and some good luck, will assure you a great day of whale watching.