As a nature-lover, I've often thought of going on safari. But Africa's far, far away, and I never liked the idea of spending so much time in a Jeep. But when friends tipped me off to a nearby sailing safari, I couldn't resist.
Captain Dave's Whale & Dolphin Safari goes out of Dana Point Harbor, a favorite spot of mine and only an hour from home. The vehicle is a 50-foot motorized catamaran, which seats 50 people. It's a big boat and it was full when we went on a weekend, but it didn't feel crowded or cramped.
There was a good mix of couples, friends and families onboard. Among us were two women celebrating birthdays, three generations of a family from Germany and a white-haired gent in an "Old Guys Rock" cap. What we all had in common was a serious desire to see ourselves some sea life.
Captain Dave Anderson, who's been sailing these waters since the 1970s, is passionate about whales and dolphins. He's even made a film about them.
He loves to share his passion, but warned us not to get our hopes too high.
There are no guaranteed sightings on safari, though his brochures boast an 85 percent success rate. Whatever we saw would be good, he assured us, but we knew what we wanted: to see a blue whale.
Blues are the largest animals on the planet, an endangered species, down to about 10,000 worldwide. A fifth of those come to summer off the California coast.
As we moved out of the harbor, pelicans watched from the jetty and we passed sailboats, kayaks, pedal boats, jet skis and kayaks. A mile out, we got lucky: a pod of about 40 Risso's dolphins were suddenly up ahead.
I'd never heard of Risso's dolphins – big 10-footers with dark bodies scratched white by the teeth of their buddies. The first mate lowered a hydrophone, so we could eavesdrop: a soundtrack of clicks and whistles that made up their conversations.
After awhile with the Rissos, we moved on to bluer waters, looking for that big blue whale. All eyes were on the water and then someone saw more dolphins. These were common dolphins, smaller and more playful. At least a 100 of them leaped around our boat.
That was fun too, but we were running out of time. We started circling the area. At 7 miles out, in 1800 feet of water, the GPS said we were in the right spot, but no one saw a spout. Blue whales dive down to feed and can stay down 15 minutes. Captain Dave checked his watch – we couldn't hang out long. He had another group waiting on shore.
We were about to head back when we hit the cetacean jackpot: first one spout, then two, then three - three beautiful blue whales, the size of jet planes.
We spent about 10 minutes admiring the big blues, then it was time to go. It had been a great trip, relaxing and exciting. And we'd learned a little something too.