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Whale Watching is My Favorite Season

By – Amy Knight, Climate Change and Social Impact Scientist. UCSD

Some people get excited for pumpkins and sweater weather. Others can’t wait for December Nights at Balboa Park. But when I feel that coolness on the breeze that signals winter is around the corner, all I can think is “the whales are coming.” Fall and winter have their place in my calendar, but whale watching is my favorite season.

I’m convinced that my desire to commune with whales came from an early childhood experience at an aquarium. After playing on a set of dorsal fin statues set on the viewing floor, I fell and began to cry. The orca quickly swam over, crossing the tank towards my cries. She pressed her nose against the glass, and all I remember feeling was her concern and love radiating through it. From then on, I was a die-hard orca fan. I grew up with the occasional whale watching tour in Washington State, where orca sightings were the norm. From there, I moved to Florida, where manatees reign as the charismatic mammals of the sea. It wasn’t until I moved to San Diego that I really got my whale watching fix.

My most recent trip was late January. The temperature held at a high of 70 degrees and the sun was shining brightly overhead – a perfect San Diego day. Upon boarding, the captain informed us that the sea was unusually calm and glassy-smooth. As we glided out of the bay, cormorants dove in and out of the water and seagulls circled ahead. Before catching sight of any whales, the boat was greeted by a large pod of dolphins looking for some fun. The group took turns riding the bow for at least 30 minutes, seeming to love every moment spent jumping and spinning underwater. Then finally, a blow was sighted! And another! Two adult gray whales swam slowly past our port side, unconcerned that they were fashionably late to the breeding grounds.

That experience is a pretty standard description of whale watching in San Diego. And yet each year, the presence of the whales feels like a gift. That’s not because sightings are rare — over 20,000 gray whales migrate past San Diego on their way to Baja each year. For me, it is more an expression of harmony and balance within the ocean, something I try not to take for granted. After all, it is the cycles of the ocean that set this migration. The gray whales eat their fill up in the Arctic when plankton are plentiful, and migrate down to the warmer and safer waters of Baja to breed and safely escort their young back to where they can feast and learn all the secrets of the gray whale.

Decades after that encounter with the orca, being in the presence of whales still fills me with a sense of wonder. And maybe that is what makes the shifting seasons so magical to me. Contrary to what many claim, there are no shortage of signs that the seasons are changing in San Diego. The next time you see a pumpkin in the grocery store, I hope now you’ll think to yourself, “the whales are coming.”

To Be Continued…

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