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Searching for Gray Whales in Oxnard

January 28th, 2010 by Greg Aragon

It’s that time of the year again; time to gather the pod and head south from the cold waters of Alaska to the warm lagoons of Mexico for better food and spawning. This is of course, if you are a California Gray Whale. But since I’m not, I’ll just stick to watching the migration from the comfort of a boat, like I did last weekend.

My getaway began Saturday morning at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, where a friend and I purchased two whale watching tickets through Island Packers and boarded a 68-ft. vessel named Vanguard.

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With a cool wind blowing and an escort of squawking seagulls, we set out on a four-hour journey in search of Eschrichtius robustus, or gray whale. Thirty minutes into the adventure we encountered school of playful risso dolphins, jumping alongside the boat, delighted to see us. A crew member said the mammals were in the area feeding on squid.

When the dolphins departed, the captain turned down the engines and nearly 80 passengers and crew scanned the ocean surface for signs of whales. In a few moments the captain turned everyone’s attention to 75 yards off the right side of the bow.

“Do you see that glossy, calm area in the water, with no ripples, that kind of looks like an oil spill,” he asked. “Well that is the footprint, or impression that a whale makes on the water’s surface when it dives.”

As we studied the footprint, a spout of water erupted like a volcano and a huge gray and white body rolled atop the surface, exposing a large dorsal fin. As we gasped in amazement, the whale vanished, leaving us in silence, with cameras and binoculars in hand. In a couple minutes, the beast popped up a few hundred yards in the other direction and our ship began pursuit.

We enjoyed a few more good looks at the whale and his friends before the ship reached the rocky perimeter of Anacapa Island, where we spotted a herd of brown sea lions and California seals.

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On the way back to the harbor, I sipped hot chocolate and read about gray whales. Growing to 50 ft, they began migrating in October as northern ice pushes southward. Swimming around the clock, up to 25,000 of them cover 80 miles per day until reaching Baja by early January. After relaxing in Mexico for a while, they head back up the coast around April, completing their 12,500-mile roundtrip.

Island Packers offers daily whale watching trips from Oxnard and Ventura. When the gray whales leave in March, they began Humpback whale tours. For more information, call (805) 642-1393 or visit www.islandpackers.com. For an overnight getaway package, Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Hotel & Resort in Oxnard is offering a romantic Whale Watching Package, with overnight accommodations in a deluxe suite, two whale watching tickets with Island Packers, full breakfast, and a daily Manager’s Reception with free beer, wine, well drinks. For more information on the Whale Watching Packages call (805) 984-2500 or visit mandalaybeach.embassysuites.com.

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