How to Go Whalewatching

bla-commondolphinsolo.jpgEven if you’re not in London today to see the northern bottle-nosed whale maybe it’s made you think about going whalewatching right off the coast here.

But maybe you don’t know what to bring or what it’s like to go whalewatching.

There are many different landings to go out on and each has its own advantages. Some have boats with more amenities such as a full bar and others offer a closer vantage point to the wild shores of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Whichever you choose to go on, make the most of your trip.

All boats offer good seating, some inside/protected and some outside. You can usually leave your stuff (jacket, bag, etc.) at your seat and move around the boat (just take your wallet with you at all times), so don’t be afraid of overpacking. Check out the websites of the landings, most have photos of their boats or call and ask questions.

Call Ahead

Make a Reservation: let the landing know that you’re coming. They’re a business and they like to have some idea how many people are showing up to know how to stock the boat (they usually have concessions). Calling ahead means you can ask questions, too.

Don’t get me wrong, you can go whalewatching as a spur of the moment thing, but call ahead to make sure the boat is going out.

When to Get There

Arrive Early: get to the landing at least 15 minutes early. Like airplanes, most boat’s list their departure time, and if there are 50 passengers, it takes a while for everyone to get on board. Leaving yourself a little time means that you can scope things out as well and recheck that you didn’t leave anything in the car (and get your parking validated). Arriving late is annoying to the other passengers, especially when they’re on the boat and the departure is delayed because of you.

What to Wear

Even if it’s mild and calm on land, it can be windy, cold and damp out at sea, even though we’re only a mile or two offshore.

On your body: dress in layers. I usually wear a tee shirt, a turtleneck sweater (cotton) then a fleece and bring a water-resistant windbreaker. On days when it seems choppy or colder I’ll also bring fingerless gloves. If you don’t bring it with you, you can’t put it on.

On your head: a hat and sunscreen is a must. Even though it’s the dead of winter you can still get sunburned and if it’s a mid-day trip, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is for the part in your hair to get burned. Wide brimmed hats don’t stay on your head because of the wind, so stick to ball caps or bucket style hats or even stocking caps.

On your feet: wear comfortable shoes. Sneakers are good, heels are bad.

On your face: most people prefer sunglasses as well, since you can get some wicked glare off of the water. Polarized are best for being able to see whale blows and making out creatures under the water.

What to Bring

Camera – even a point and shoot can get great shots of the creatures that we get really close to like the sea lions, birds when we’re in the harbor and the dolphins. The views of the Los Angeles basin from the boat can also be stunning, so bring the camera along. If you’re shooting digital make sure your batteries are charged and you’ve got as much storage space as possible.

Binoculars – you don’t need them, really. The captain, crew and naturalists will take care of finding the big creatures and angling the boat for the best possible view. But if you want to get a good view of a whale that doesn’t feel like getting closer (boats can only approach at a distance of 100 yards), bring them along. I have two sets, one really good Nikon and then another dinky/cheap set from Bauche & Lomb that we bought on vacation one time. They’re compact enough to tuck in my pocket.

Snacks – I like to munch. It helps to pass the time and can help calm queasy stomachs.

Gum – mint is best as peppermint is supposed to have stomach soothing properties
Hard Candies – I usually have a pocket of mints or Lifesavers. I also found some good ginger hard candies at Trader Joe’s that are very good for upset tummies.
Chocolates – hey, they were on sale after Christmas, just pretend the red Hershey’s Kisses are for Valentines Day. (Just be careful the wrappers don’t blow overboard … put them back in your pocket.)
Salty Snacks – I prefer pretzels with a few almonds mixed in as a good savory, simple snack.
Water – bring a bottle of water (or buy something to drink on board). I don’t think sodas and ocean mix well but I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you can stand to be shaken up after drinking carbonated stuff.

If you think you might have a sea sickness problem, take something. Two hours before you board the boat take a Dramamine or something of the same type. They can make you drowsy, so make sure you’re up to driving.

I’ve seen people bring picnic lunches on board, nothing wrong with that. Just be aware that it can be windy and the boat can rock quite a bit. Sandwiches work better than salads. Most of the boats don’t allow large coolers, but a little big or mini-cooler with your goodies should be just fine.

GPS – Will brought along a GPS locator, which is a pretty cool way to find out exactly where we were when you get home with your photos.

Cameraphone – yes, most cellphones work out on the water. So, if you really want to taunt someone who didn’t come along, take spectacular photo of a whale fluke with your phone and send it to them while you’re still on the boat. Or better yet, photoblog the whole thing.

Carrying It All

I usually bring a small messenger bag that fits over my body where I keep my camera, snacks and a couple of wildlife guidebooks. I wear my binoculars around my neck and usually keep my camera in my pocket. Some folks bring a small backpack, which can work well, but you don’t want to be wearing it around on the boat, as the stairs can sometimes be narrow and you don’t want to knock anyone over.

Make sure it’s not something you’d be upset about if it got wet. Sometimes it’s windy and sometimes the swells get big. You can get wet (I’ve never seen anyone get soaked, but I’ve gotten a good spritz quite a few times when riding up at the bow). Salt water is not good for nice Coach leather bags.

If you want to try any of this advice out, I’ll be leading the trip out of Spirit Cruises at Ports ‘o Call tomorrow at 11:30 AM.