AutoMatters+: Thar She Blows! San Diego Whale Watching

On a beautiful Monday morning in January, I joined a group of fellow photographers from San Diego’s Pacific Photographic Society Meetup group ( to go whale watching. Our three-hour cruise was aboard the Sea Adventure 80 — one of the many charter boats operated out of H&M Landing in San Diego ( Since I would be heading out to the open ocean, it gave me confidence to know that H&M Landing is billed as “the West Coast’s oldest, most experienced Sportfishing company and represents San Diego’s finest ocean going passenger fleet.” They have been in operation since 1935.

According to the trip’s description on the H&M Landing website, they suggest that you might also see dolphins, birds and sea lions. We did!

Whale watching has long been a family-friendly tradition in San Diego. Enormous gray whales spouting, fluking and, if you’re lucky, breaching, are truly sights to remember. Add to that the excitement of observing these huge yet friendly creatures from a nearby boat on the open ocean.

Each year the gray whales undertake their long, 12,000-mile migration southward from the Bering Sea past San Diego to Baja California, Mexico. In mid-January, it is common to see as many as eight to 20 and more gray whales per day on a whale watching trip. I lost count of how many I saw.

Having a knowledgeable captain narrate makes a real difference on a whale watching expedition. Throughout the entire trip, our captain (Scott McDaniel, if I am not mistaken) told us about the whales, sights along the San Diego coastline that we were passing, and more. Relying upon his years of experience, he took us to where the whales were, over and over again. Steering the boat in their direction, he told us where to look to see the whales and dolphins by making references to the hour hands on a clock (for example, 12 was straight ahead, 10 was to the left and 2 was to our right).

It has been many years since I last went whale watching, so this was essentially a new experience for me. When watching for a gray whale, what you’ll typically see first is a whale spout — a powerful mist of water and air blown out of the double blowhole at the top of their heads. You should also see the length of the upper portion of the whale on the surface of the water. This may last for a few minutes before the whale slowly dives back down, ending with its fluke (tail) rising high above the water and water streaming off of its edge. The whale will then disappear below the surface for several minutes in a deep dive, leaving calm surface water in its wake. This is called fluking.

Something that unfortunately we did not see on this trip is breaching. This is when whales spectacularly leap out of the water, perhaps to avoid something. I also did not see spyhopping, which is when whales stick their heads out of the water to look around and see what’s happening. I did see some dolphins leap out of the water, but I was not quick enough to capture them with a camera.

On our way out to sea, we observed many sea lions lazily sunning themselves on a dock. We also had plenty of opportunities to photograph sea birds in flight. In one photo, I captured several birds competing in mid-air for a fish.

I was amazed by how affordable whale watching can be. H&M Landing’s standard adult ticket price posted on their website is $45 for their morning and afternoon cruises, but discounted prices as low as $20 are readily available for several of their scheduled departures (check the website). The cruise alone, in the ocean waters off San Diego, is well worth more than that.

You’ll want to dress warmly on the open ocean. I was comfortable wearing a sweatshirt covered by a light jacket for the trip.

Something else that you might wish to prepare for is seasickness. I was fine, but the person standing next to me was not feeling so well.

Although some of the whales came close to us, for the most part they were a fair distance away from the boat, so you’ll want to bring a camera with a long telephoto lens. I used my 150 – 600mm Tamron. That worked out pretty well.

As always, please write to with your comments and suggestions.

Copyright © 2015 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters+ #367r2