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There are sounds in the sea--joyous sounds. Chirping, squeaking, clicking, blowing, singing, splashing symphonies echo beneath the waves. These are the sounds of whales, and, at long last, they're getting louder. Indeed, this whale chorus is approaching levels not recorded since 19th-century whalers began chasing the leviathans to near extinction.

The comeback of the great whales in the eastern North Pacific is shaping up as a landmark environmental success story. And nowhere is the phenomenon more evident than just off our Western shores. While scientists debate actual numbers, the evidence is overwhelming: whales are being seen with increasing frequency from Alaska clear down the coast to Baja California --and in Hawaii. How many are now swimming in our waters? Enough to support rapid growth in a new whale-based industry: whale-watching.

This month, as another migration begins, tour companies are expecting a record number of watchers. Now through April is the longest season and most dependable time of year to see the California gray all along the West Coast, and the humpback in Hawaii.

Less well known is whale-watching's second season--summer. June through September, orcas, or killer whales, are in Puget Sound and Johnstone Strait; from July into November in recent years, blues and humpbacks have been seen regularly in deep water off San Francisco (see map on page 55).

"The West Coast is without doubt the best region in the world for people to see the great whales,' states Alan Baldridge of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, in Pacific Grove, California. "In no other place do so many different species come so close to populated shores at predictable times of the year.'

Are we loving them to distraction?

But this very accessibility has a growing number of experts worried. As the popularity of watching whales increases, so does concern over the effect that growing numbers of tour and private boats may be having on migrating grays near California and on breeding activities in Hawaii.

Last winter, we counted at least 24 companies in Southern California alone. At season's peak, these were running upward of a hundred boats, as many as four times a day; one outfit carried some 64,000 passengers over four months. And this doesn't take into account the numbers of pleasure craft conducting whale-watching trips of their own.

These numbers may be staggering, but most experts feel that commercial whale-watching isn't yet a problem in California. Ongoing research is revealing that minor shifts and changes from year to year in gray whale migration corridors are normal.

In fact, as Mark Palmer, of Oakland's Whale Center, points out, "Whale-watching has done more than anything else over the years to educate the public to the plight of whales. The more people know about whales and the oceans they live in, the better off our environment will be.'

"A bigger concern,' according to National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Jim Lecky, "is what's happening in Hawaii. Whales are being displaced from prime calving areas around Maui, and the main reason seems to be noise from generally increasing boat traffic. But the biggest problem is whale harassment by private boaters who don't understand--or who just ignore--federal guidelines.'

Those guidelines are simple: boats should not approach within 100 yards of whales in any waters (or within 300 yards of whales in designated Hawaiian calving waters), and boats should follow whales from behind and to the side at a constant speed not exceeding that of the slowest whale. Note that whales sometimes approach boats. For safety's sake, boats should never approach or come between a whale and its calf. Aircraft must not drop lower than 1,000 feet over whales.

Currently, violators can be cited, but the NMFS has incorporated its guidelines into laws that will give it even more clout in Hawaii's troubled waters this season.

Most experts feel that the least disruptive ways to see whales are from land or from a whale-watching tour boat that has a specially trained naturalist aboard. The listings on the opposite page offer suggestions for both.

Back from the brink of extinction

There is something stirring about seeing whales in the wild, something that has made whale protection one of the nation's most popular--and most emotional-- wildlife issues for more than a decade.

Maybe it's that, like us, whales are mammals: they breathe, they nurse their young, they have a body temperature of 98|. Maybe it's their colossal size: the blue whale is the largest animal that has ever inhabited our planet. Maybe it's their individuality: grays migrate some 10,000 miles, orcas live in tight family groups, male humpbacks "sing' variations of complex underwater arias.

Or maybe it's simply because man, who once hunted these magnificent creatures to the brink of extinction, is now successfully working to restore their numbers.

Although whaling has decreased dramatically since some 32,000 whales were killed in 1972-73, it was only last year that the International Whaling Commission was able to virtually ban commercial whaling. Now, the last whaling nations are only "studying' whales (in the name of research, Japan plans to kill at least 300 whales this season).

The IWC is trying to close this loophole, too, and allow hunting only for traditional native subsistence or under specific scientific permit. While even limited hunting may still threaten several species, the general outlook for all whale species is finally brightening.

View from a boat or a bluff

Of the 76 known species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, some 30 are found in eastern North Pacific waters off our shores. These 30 include all but 2 of the dozen "great whales' (those measuring 25 feet or longer).

You can dependably see four of the largest species--the blue, gray, humpback, and orca, shown on pages 54 and 55-- from boats near shore at certain predictable times of year. The blue whale is the only one you can't regularly see from land as well.

To spot whales from land or sea, scan toward the horizon for misty "blows.' Slick spots on the surface of the water may be "fluke prints'--a kind of transient footprint left on the surface by a forcefully downward-sweeping fluke.

But tour boats are by far the best way to have a close encounter of the whale kind. This month, operators in California and Hawaii are so confident of seeing whales that some plan to offer rain checks or refunds if you don't see at least one.

The box below offers an overview of watching opportunities and special activities, with a focus on northern California. We list coastal headlands with easy access and superior viewing opportunities, tour operators, and major whale exhibits and festivals scheduled at our deadline.

In many cases, the headlands are parks with regularly scheduled naturalist programs. Bring binoculars; they're helpful for tracking moving whales. Mornings tend to be best: winds are lightest and, on the West Coast, the sun is behind you.

Tour operators on our list are major nonprofit educational or scientific organizations offering frequent naturalist-led outings. Other groups in your area-- including schools, natural history museums, environmental organizations-- may offer their own special tours. In addition, hundreds of commercial whale-watch tours on fishing charter and excursion boats leave from dozens of harbors. Most tours are on 40- to 80-foot fishing boats (small enough to make motion sickness a problem), and usually discourage bringing children under six. If tours with the organizations we list are booked, ask for referrals or check the yellow pages under Whale Watching Tours, Boat Charters, or Fishing Parties. Or ask local chambers of commerce for listings.

For detailed listings of whale-watching opportunities elsewhere on the coast, send a stamped, self-addressed business-size envelope to Whales, Sunset Magazine, 80 Willow Rd., Menlo Park, Calif. 94025.

The great whales of the Pacific, where and when to see them

Because of lucky combinations of geography and food supply, the four kinds of whales shown here--drawn in scale to one another--dependably appear close to shore at specific times of year. All along the West Coast and in Hawaii, grays' migration and humpbacks' breeding are at their peak now into April.

Blue, gray, and humpback are among the 10 baleen whale species (suborder Mysticeti). They thrive on small fish, krill, and other organisms, which they catch by straining great mouthfuls of sea water through thin vertical plates of hard, fibrous baleen that hang from their upper jaws.

While grays are bottom-feeders, blues and humpbacks are gulpers, with long pleats under their jaws that can triple the size and capacity of their mouths, allowing them to strain huge amounts of water.

Orcas, or "killer whales,' are the largest members of the dolphin family. They're among the largest of the 65 species of toothed whales (Odontoceti), which include sperm whales, dolphins, porpoises, and beaked whales. Toothed whales eat mostly fish and squid, but some orcas also hunt small marine mammals and other whales.

These four aren't the only cetaceans to be found in Western waters. Along much of the coast, you may also see common, bottlenosed, and Pacific white-sided dolphins; Dall's or harbor porpoises; or small Minke whales. In deeper waters, sperm, fin, and sei whales are occasionally spotted.

Our map shows where and when to see whales migrating, feeding, or breeding; colors are keyed to each species

Alaska is summer feeding area for many whales. Best viewing: near Seward (Prince William Sound), near Sitka, Glacier Bay. You may also see orcas, humpbacks, and some grays in the Inside Passage

British Columbia. Watch in summer for orcas and grays

Oregon, Washington. Gray migration peaks around Christmas and late March; orcas are off Washington all summer

Northern California. See migrating grays January through April, blues and humpbacks-off San Francisco July through October

Southern California. Gray whale migration peaks January (southbound) and March (return)

Hawaii is the primary breeding and calving ground of North Pacific humpbacks migrating from Alaska. Season peaks December to April

Baja. January and February, gray whales calve and breed in coastal lagoons, while humpbacks and blues are visible along the coast

Photo: Watching whales

Crowding the bow and the port railing of 65-foot fishing boat out of San Pedro, in Southern California, warmly dressed whale-watchers on 2 1/2-hour cruise last winter have just spotted blow of migrating gray

Photo: Picture taken from Goodyear blimp shows three gray whales paralleling path of tour boat. Once whales were spotted, boat followed at minimum 100-yard distance required by federal guidelines

Photo: Breaching humpback pirouettes on its tail before crashing back into the sea just beyond Maui tour boat

Photo: Heading south

Gray whale pod rounds Palos Verdes Peninsula during southbound migration. Cruising at about 4 miles per hour, grays take six months or longer to make the 10,000-mile round trip from Alaska to Baja

Submerged: 45-foot-long whale, unseen from boat

Blowing: breath steams as whale surfaces

Sounding: exposed back, then flukes, signal dive

Photo: Scanning for whales, watchers atop cliff at Point Reyes, California, arrived early for best conditions, lightest crowds

Photo: Portable displays at Point Dume help naturalist explain gray whale migration

Photo: Who's curiouser? Gray whale calf nuzzles gray boat from cruise vessel in Baja lagoon

Photo: Research sailboat (seen from tour boat) in B.C.'s Johnstone Strait tracks movements of pod of orcas (killer whales); note light gray saddle markings behind dorsal fins

Photo: Orca, male and female

These 30-foot-long acrobats are easily identified by tall dorsal fins, gray saddle patches, and black and white markings. They're found in all Western seas and many marine parks. Males (top) have larger and more erect dorsal fins than do females. Though orcas aren't migratory, the 16 resident pods (family groups) that follow salmon runs near Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands are easy to find between July and September. Transient pods found in other waters range farther to hunt fish and marine mammals, including other whales

Photo: Blue whale

At 100 feet long, the blue is the planet's largest animal. Because of hunting (29,649 were killed in 1931 alone) and their preference for deep, open-ocean waters, blues are seldom seen these days--but only recently they have reappeared in Monterey Bay and around the Farallon Islands near San Francisco, apparently to feed. Their broad tails (up to 1/4 as wide as the body is long) made them fast enough to elude 19th-century whalers. Tan patches are moss-like growths

Photo: Gray whale

The West's most visible, most frequently seen whale, the 50-foot-long grays hug the coast during their 10,000-mile migration from Alaska to calving lagoons in Baja and back. Called devilfish by whalers, who had reduced their population to fewer than 2,000 whales by 1937, grays now number an estimated 18,000--a level unknown since early whaling days. Shown here are a barnacle-encrusted, mottled gray cow and her darker calf, often seen close to shore in spring. Identify the gray by its distinctive V-shaped "blow'

Photo: Humpback whale

A 50-foot-long singer, easily identified by long pectoral fins and white markings on tail flukes. Hauntingly beautiful "songs,' repeated by males suspended head down, may serve some mating purpose. In 1966, fewer than 1,000 humpbacks were left; a hunting ban has resulted in that number's doubling. In Hawaii, adults are often seen breaching, tails slapping and flippers flopping
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on whale's behavior and museum exhibits, festivals
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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