Really Want to Watch a Whale? Abandon Your Cruise Ship

By Steve Hendrix

The Washington Post

I was a man searching for a whale. I was also a man waiting for the emails that would tell me where to look.

Call me You’ve-got-mail.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a Melvillian story of whales, the sea and the nature of man’s obsession. It’s a story of whales, the sea and some really excellent umbrella drinks. (And it’s way shorter than that other one.)

Though I wasn’t obsessed with whales, I really did want to see some. When I emailed for advice from some wildlife-savvy friends, word came back that the place to be at this time of year if you’re a whale – or a whale watcher – is Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Baja is the winter end of one of nature’s great migrations, the annual loop of gray whales from Alaska to the warmer currents of Mexico and Southern California. They come down between late December and early April, frolic in the balmy 50-degree waters, do the important of work of birthing their babies, then head north for another Arctic summer.

There are small-ship specialty cruises devoted to the winter whales of Baja, complete with Zodiac outings and wildlife hikes. But those were more time – and money – consuming than my whale enthusiasm would support. (Ahab would have scoffed.) A friend suggested something quicker and cheaper: Book onto any winter cruise heading south out of Los Angeles, and I’d be all but guaranteed to find myself among the leviathans. And he wasn’t talking about the line at the midnight buffet.

That’s how I ended up on board Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas on a January Friday as it pulled slowly out of the Port of Los Angeles. We were bound for Ensenada, Mexico, on a three-day, three-night itinerary that would include one full day at sea in whale-rich waters. There were longer trips that included stops at Catalina Island and San Diego. But at US$775 for an outside stateroom, a weekend quickie with a bunch of partying Angelenos sounded just about right.


Truth be told, I was just as interested in watching people as whales. This trip would let me compare the short-cruise scene of Southern California with its popular counterpart in south Florida. Substitute Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Nassau with LA, San Diego and Ensenada and you’ve got short cruising, Pacific style. You remember The Love Boat, right?

Starting with the ports, I was quickly impressed with Left Coast cruising. In Miami, casting off is such a straightforward affair: Pull away from the dock and off you go. Getting underway from the sprawling waterfront labyrinth of LA’s San Pedro port is more like backing up in a Costco parking lot, starting with the dicey three-point turn between an Italian freighter and the end of the pier. We squeaked by and glided out through the spooky industrial glow of the nighttime port. Ships crept silently over the inky water, waiting to submit to the towering War of the Worlds cranes that disemboweled them one container at a time. Slowly we gained open water, heading along the green neon rope that a distant buoy was tossing to us across the black Pacific.

On board, there was something distinctive about the crowd that was line dancing around the pool bar or otherwise honoring our departure. They were more fixed up, by and large, than East Coast cruisers. Sunglasses were common long after sunset, and great hair was everywhere. Even the guy in the Holt Electric Service windbreaker had anchorman locks and a surfer tan. The elapsed time from castoff until I overheard my first plastic surgery conversation was under 30 minutes. (“Just go see him; there’s no obligation,” said a 40-something blonde in a black leather jacket to a 40-something blonde in a red leather jacket. “Make it a retirement present to yourself.”)

Inside, the routine would be familiar to any cruise veteran. A restless program of bingo, shopping primers for the next day’s stop in Ensenada, frozen drink specials at countless bars, art auctions, first-night dining room confusion and a line 20 people long to make spa appointments.

One thing the ship didn’t seem to include in its expansive program was anything to do with the whale migration going on all around us. There was a two-page catalog of excursions, from Mexican folklore to wine tours, but no whale-watching trips. There was no naturalist on board, not even a whale book in the scant, Danielle Steele-heavy library.

But what Royal Caribbean didn’t provide, Mother Nature did. The next morning I was up with the sun, thanks to jet lag and my having bailed out on the Rockin’ Dueling Pianos the night before. I was nursing coffee in the chill morning gray of Deck 11 as Captain Lindegren swung us inland and pointed the bow between some guano-covered rocks into Ensenada’s harbor. A pair of sea lions eyed us indifferently from the foamy base of the rocks. Fifty yards off the starboard side, my eye was drawn to a puff of mist, quickly followed by a second. Two slick and sparkling backs rolled out of the charcoal-colored sea; a third cloud of mist and a third back emerged just behind them. The trio disappeared, only to repeat their undulating breach a few seconds later. They were moving steadily, which I guess is the way you move if you’re an animal that commutes 12,400 miles a year.

I had met my whales. In the words of Ahab: Phew.

All Aboard!

I was thus an easygoing whale enthusiast when I walked down the gangplank into Ensenada. Formerly a major tuna center, it’s gaining ground now as a tourism spot for Mexicans and a cruise port for Americans. It’s a pretty city, a wide harbor in the protective hug of the surrounding mountains. They’ve ginned up the usual bargain-hunters’ row of cruise-ship-approved jewelry and souvenir shops, but to me the city’s appeal was in the long, dusty blocks of unimproved Mexican waterfront. I walked from the ship to the busy stretch of docks and began asking about whale-watching cruises. The answer was always the same: Sergio. Sergio will take you.

I found Sergio in a tidy storefront office in front of a fishing pier labeled Sergio’s Sport Fishing. Yes, he had whale cruises leaving every day during the winter. Today’s would take off at 11am., an hour from now. The cost for four hours was $25.

I may have been hoping for a rusty old scow with Sergio at the helm, but the Ensenada Clipper turned out to be a trim, if austere, 85-foot trawler. About 20 other tourists were aboard, all Mexican families and groups of friends. We each put on an orange life jacket, and the guide, a biology student from the local university, handed me a pamphlet describing the route in English. But her spiel, which she began as we gurgled away from the dock, was in Spanish. Not to worry; her microphone broke after five minutes, and we all went without a soundtrack.

For an hour we motored out through light rain and four-foot seas to the rocks guarding the entrance to All Saints Bay. It was cold, but almost everyone stayed on deck. One man, a restaurant owner from near Tijuana, wore a serape under his life vest.

“Over there,” cried a crew member, pointing out to the right. `”Two … three of them.”

It’s not “Thar she blows!” but it did sound better in Spanish.

We all gathered along the starboard rail, and the captain gunned it toward the spouts. Before we got close, another pod surfaced much closer, three of them to the left. No one missed it as the two adults ended their rise with their tails in the air, a tandem dance of grace and might.

“Mira! Mira!” called the crowd. “Look!”

For the next 90 minutes, we trailed six or seven groups, probably 15 whales in all. Sometimes the skipper idled alongside them, 20 or 30 yards away, close enough for us to hear the air rush from their blowholes in a fountain of spray and whale breath. Of all the whale trips I’ve taken, only Alaska, with its garish leaping orcas, was more satisfying than this bare-bones cruise out of Ensenada.

On the way back in, as we passed the seals, sea lions and pelicans that gathered on the harbor rocks, I struck up a conversation with an engineering professor and his wife and sister. We talked whales and politics, and when we docked they invited me to join them for a coffee to warm up. As always when you run into friendly locals, that led to the best times and the best food of the trip. In this case, the fish tacos of Ensenada.

“Forget those places near the ship,” Roberto had said of the tourist stands lining the waterfront. Instead, he drove us five blocks inland to Taqueria El Fenix, a small street-corner stand that would have been unassuming except for the huge crowd gathered around it. An identical stand across the street had no customers. We joined the throng, waving like pit traders until we caught the eye of the woman in charge. She handed over, on a fresh tortilla, a hunk of fish, battered and fried in a kettle. It was the kind of surprise delicacy that road-food gourmands live for. The fish was white and steaming; the beer batter was as light as tempura. The self-serve bowls of onions, peppers and chili sauces were fresh, clean and delicious.

Those fish tacos – I had four of them – were a perfect goodbye from Ensenada. And they were basically my last brush with sea life on the cruise. The next day was a bust, whale-wise. We spent the day idling about 20 miles off the coast of San Diego in an international limbo that allowed the casino, bingo games and bars to run at full speed all day. There were belly-flop competitions, salsa lessons, rock climbing, yoga classes and lots of mating rituals to observe, particularly around the pool bar. But no whales.

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