The Seldom Seen Side of Catalina

Last spring I went to Catalina for the first time. I did the tourista trip, Catalina Express to Avalon for the day. Yesterday I had a completely different experience with the island, starting with the fact that I never stepped foot on it but fell in love with it from afar. I took a trip set up by the American Cetacean Society called “Around Catalina with John Olguin.”

We departed from Long Beach along with 500 other people on the Catalina Countess – a huge three story boat that gave us a smooth crossing. It was hazy and overcast but the visibility was pretty good. Shortly after rounding the Palos Verdes Peninsula we spotted two gray whales heading north. We slowed and circled, and caught sight of them once from a distance before we sped off to our destination, the far side of Catalina. During the crossing we had special guest lecturers, including John Olguin giving his amazing recreation of the sounds that whales make (memorized from a record he had), which included the buzzing lawnmower like sounds of pilot whales to the booming thumps of sperm whales to the mournful songs of humpbacks.

As we approached the west end, the first thing evident is that the heavy rains have made Catalina vividly green and lush looking. Even with the heavy clouds, the color was striking. The sun was poking through the cloud wrapped hilltops and illuminating the valleys. Next thing we saw close into shore was a pod of dolphins — make that a megapod — there were thousands, at least two miles long and a half a mile across. The long-beaked common dolphins came out to meet the boat and delighted everyone by riding both in our bow wake and surfing behind in the boat’s wake for about ten minutes.

We headed around the western tip and kept a keen eye out for Gray Whales. Though they usually hug the coast on their southern migration, their north migration usually takes advantage of the currents and they skirt along the western side of the island. But we didn’t spot them right away, instead it was a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins speeding off, probably to feed on nearby squid. Their course paralleled ours for about 10 minutes. Within minutes we spotted some telltale, heart-shaped blows off our starboard and came about to catch up, finding four whales traveling in a loose group. We followed them for close to ten minutes as we watched the megapod of common dolphins we saw from the other side of the island streaming out in a long dark line several miles long towards San Nicolas Island. The same direction we saw the bottlenose heading a half hour earlier.

After that burst of activity we settled in to watch the backside of Catalina, with fishing boats anchored close to shore and our geologist guide gave us a wonderful primer on the history of the island and pointed out relevant features. During part of that lecture a Bald Eagle was spotted in the air as it was harassed by some seagulls. Up on the little coves and rocky outcroppings were sea lions and harbor seals hauled out to sun (well, not much sun) themselves in complete seclusion.

Far out to sea we saw more blows from other groups of gray whales – too far for us to catch as they were going north and we had to continue south. Rounding the east side of the island brought us back within sight of civilization as we passed the quarry where most of the seawalls in Los Angeles got their rocks. Shortly after rounding the bend we came upon the reverse-osmosis desalination plant for the island residents and then the town of Avalon. Off in the distance were more dolphins throwing themselves out of the water and spinning. The boat had already spent so much time with the whales and other common dolphins that it was time to head back to the dock in Long Beach. As we got closer the clouds cleared and the water turned from turquoise to prussian blue. Getting off the boat, I wanted to relive the day and look at all my photos.

The gray whalewatch season ends in a few weeks, but we’re already making plans to go see the Humpback whales in the Santa Barbara Channel in May and Blue Whales in July.

(click on the photos for really large versions)

8 thoughts on “The Seldom Seen Side of Catalina”

  1. Ah, lovely! The damsel and I had planned to go on this trip, but we didn’t make it this time around.

    500 people? Wow. It’s encouraging to see there’s such an overwhelming and supportive response to this sort of thing.

    I could go whale watching every day!

  2. Thousands of dolphins?! I can barely comprehend such a large number of them at once. What an unforgettable and phenomenal experience!

  3. That’s fascinating and really amazing.

    I’ve got a mom type person coming into town this friday (Teacher’s Spring Break you know). Realizing that this big trip is over, are there reputable tour operators that do trips like this for folk out of Los Angeles that y’all know of?

  4. Wow, amazing photos! I’m embarrassed to say I’ve lived here my whole life and never taken the express to Catalina. I must remedy that.

  5. Drew – there are quite a few landings that are running half day tours.

    You can start with the ones that use volunteer naturalists from the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and American Cetacean Society – landing info. I like going out of Redondo Beach, but I’ve never been out on Spirit Cruises – which leaves from the Queen Mary port, which is a fun trip right there.

    Trips run until the end of March, but the whales continue to migrate by until the end of April.

  6. Spirit Cruises runs daily tours of various lengths out of both Long Beach and San Pedro. Check out for more information. Not only are they good tours, but the owner is a contributing member of the community and a local business – always a nice thing to support.

    John Olguin is very much a local celebrity. In fact, I’d say he may be this town’s backbone. Anyone who grew up and went to school here knows him from elementary school presentations about marine life. I highly recommend not just whale watching trips but especially the one you took – his around-the-islands are legendary.

    We don’t have proof – but the man must have found a way to communicate directly with pods because they ALWAYS show up right on cue for him.

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