Every winter the North American gray whale population migrates thousands of miles south to Mexico to breed, not unlike spring break.
The federally-protected omnivore was removed from the endangered species list in 1994 and is thriving in record numbers. Weighing in at between 30 and 40 tons, and measuring between 40 to 50 feet long, the adult gray whale is known for its distinctive crusty skin markings. It eats by dislodging small creatures from the sea floor and filtering food through its baleen, which marine biologists say is the same way Michael Moore eats.
If you want to learn more about gray whales, I highly recommend a whale-watching trip like the one my wife and I took in Monterey, Calif. If you actually want to see a gray whale, you’ll want to avoid whale-watching trips entirely because, as we learned during our excursion, gray whales are terrified of boats.
Yes, we saw whales—22 of them, or so we were told.
Here’s what would happen.
The boat’s marine biologist would announce that there was a gray whale at the ship’s one o’clock. Everyone onboard would train their eyes, binoculars and cameras to the front of the boat where, a quarter of a mile away, a whale spout would indicate that somewhere nearby a whale was underwater.
This was very exciting for everyone because 93 percent of the time there were no traces of whales anywhere, even though the marine biologist assured us that we were floating in the middle of the world’s busiest gray whale freeway west of I-95 in Florida. So when we saw something exciting like a whale expelling carbon dioxide several football fields away we lost our minds and started yelling and pointing and taking photos and throwing all of the important radio equipment into the sea.
The gray whale would spout a few times. If we were lucky, the middle of the whale’s body might rise out of the water a foot or two. Sometimes, before it dove back under, its tail would come up. This is, appropriately, called fluking. The fluking is what the photographers were most excited about, and although I have no statistics to back this up, whale fluking is probably the most photographed thing on earth besides me eating at birthday parties.
The whale watching company encouraged us to dress in layers, ostensibly because it was cold and we would want to adjust accordingly as the sun rose. In reality the layers were because we had a better chance of staying dry in the front row of a Gallagher show.
Substitute joke for people born after 1990: In reality the layers were because we had a better chance of staying dry at Bumbershoot.
The wet, combined with the cold, sent many of us inside the boat’s cabin where, instead of looking at whales we all sat and watched a photographer slowly eat a salad.
After about two hours the boat turned around and everyone was pretty much ready to go home.
On the return leg of the trip a gray whale could have swum up to the side of the boat with a beach ball on its nose and none of us would have left the cabin. Our vibe would have been, “I want to see what happens with that photographer’s salad.”
The ship’s biologist, who was very nice and knew a lot about all of the sea life in the area, told us that gray whales are naturally “skittish.” The best close-up whale watching is blue whales and humpbacks, which was a fine thing to point out after we’d already set out to sea. Turns out blue whales are so big they can’t be bothered. Humpback whales are playful and swim right up to the boat and are pretty much the golden retrievers of the sea.
Still, we were told, we were lucky.
The North American gray whale was almost extinct at one point and now they’re back.
There are gray whales on the western side of the Pacific, although no one is sure exactly how many because no one can find them. (Note to Asian marine biologists: Don’t use boats.)
The gray whale watching experience can be disappointing for some and for this I place the blame squarely on Pacific Life and Sea World.
The Pacific Life investment company and its awesome whale logo have ruined many Americans on whale watching. In the Pacific Life logo, a humpback whale breaches the water in an impressive display of athleticism, bravado and the symbolic strength of fixed annuities. The logo says: you can trust our financial products because aren’t whales awesome!?!
And thanks to Sea World, we are conditioned to think that whales go around doing amusing stuff all the time like letting trainers surf on them and sweet flips and jumping through hoops and spitting on people and waving to crowds in return for fish.
The sad fact is real whales rarely do anything cool, especially ones making a run to the gray whale version of Senor Frog’s.
It’s like if aliens came to earth to go human watching and their expectation of our behavior was based on the Air Jordan logo. They’d be bummed when they got here and from a quarter-mile away observed guys like me on the couch watching Downton Abbey, eating Craisins and burping.
“Really,” they’d say, “that’s it? I paid 45 kleegorgs for this?”
(Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles. He publishes The Humor Columnist.)