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Whale Watching off San Diego




San Diego Harbour

San Diego Harbour. Seems peaceful enough

For years I’ve watched Sir David Attenborough present shows about our planet. Usually there’s a clip of him in a small boat, dwarfed by a huge whale just alongside. The whale often nudges the boat, or pokes its head out of the water long enough for the presenter to briefly stroke its barnacled nose.

Based on these high expectations, I thought a whale watching trip would be a great idea.

Arriving at the dock in San Diego, we were met by a grumpy cashier who demanded to see our printed tickets. Having been on the road a while, I only had the email on a tablet screen. This made him even grumpier.

The tickets were quite reasonable, so I was wary of how many people would be on our boat. The website claimed the boat could accommodate between 5 and 120. I was hoping to be at the lower end of that scale.

We stood on the docks, with only another two couples there, all carefully avoiding us. No worries if they’re not friendly, we’ll have a huge boat nearly to ourselves.

Then the buses arrived.

Fifty screaming 10-12 year olds poured out of two large coaches, whilst we looked on in horror. The other couples reared back in horror. The deck hands reared back in horror.

The teachers went inside, leaving the kids to do their thing. Their thing turned out to be harassing the sea birds, harassing the deck hands and randomly screaming at each other.

The cashier came out, ignored the teachers and ushered the kids onto a large boat. He then undid the ropes and set off, looking as gloomy as the two deck hands that accompanied him. We watched them disappear in glee, having narrowly avoided a very loud day.

Then the buses arrived.

Twenty Japanese tourists poured out of two small coaches. They lined the dockside taking photos of each other in what felt like every possible combination and pose. We waited for them to be given their own boat as well. They were ushered onto a double-decker boat and all went straight upstairs. By now there were about 10 other people on the dockside and we were all directed to get on the same double-decker boat as the Japanese tour group.

The tour group looked annoyed at this invasion of their private tour. The rest of the people looked annoyed that they’d missed out on the seats on the upper deck, despite having arrived considerably earlier. Whilst everyone else trooped upstairs to line the edges and spoil the view of those already seated, we went to the back of the lower deck and had an entire much comfier area to ourselves.

We hadn’t left the dock and already arguments and angry glares were starting on the upper deck. We stayed down below in steerage, listening to the on-board marine biologist run through a few rules. The one that stuck out the most was that we couldn’t get within 100-yards of the whales. I’m terrible at judging distances, but that sounded like quite a long way

Anyway, we were on board now. The boat full of kids hadn’t got very far – we could easily locate them using the endless screams as a form of sonar. The howls of pleasure or anguish were also doing a good job of frightening away any animals in-between the docks and the open sea. From a distance we could see the backs of pelicans as they left the area, along with the tails of sea-lions retreating to somewhere more peaceful.

Sea-lion on a buoy

The only one that didn’t run

Eventually we reached the sea. We still had the lower deck to just ourselves and another couple. They were too busy taking photographs of each other to look beyond the edge of the boat, so we were the first to notice a pod of dolphins playing at the bow.

Dolphins near San Diego

First photo of dolphins near San Diego

This was a first for me, so rather than take photos I watched as they effortlessly slid through the waves. Then the marine biologist saw what we were looking at and announced “White-sided dolphins at the bow” over the tannoy. Within seconds the entire upper deck was crowded around me, shoving us out of the way.

This may have been when I started to get grumpy…

Dolphins near San Diego

Second photo of dolphins near San Diego and some chaps arm

Shortly after, we were joined by a group of common dolphins. This time I took a photo before really enjoying the view.

Then nothing happened for a while, and my moment of peace was broken only by a gentle grumbling coming from my general vicinity, which was strange as I was sitting by myself…

The marine biologist’s sharp eyes spotted a whale on the horizon. I waited for us to draw a little nearer. We did, but not a lot. At a hundred yards a whale tail is about 3mm across. Its spout is barely a centimetre. Given my dodgy eyes it could have been a clump of seaweed.

How to spot a whale

How to spot a whale

Suddenly the lower deck was full again, as people rushed downstairs to be maybe a yard closer than they were upstairs. One particularly excited Japanese lady pointed animatedly at the spout on the horizon and shouted at an impressive volume for someone so small: “HUAROO”!

Whilst I pondered the meaning of this, three dozen cameras went off in unison.  I’m not photography expert, but I’m pretty sure the flash on an iPad isn’t necessary at midday in bright sunlight, at an object at least a hundred yards away.


Whale tail

Whale-tail from a distance

What the whale tail actually looked like from that distance

A second spume of water appeared. “HWA-ROOOO” came the cry again. My new favourite tour group were taking self-photos of themselves with the minuscule dot on the horizon.

The other couple were ignoring the whales and taking photos of their shoes. To be fair, they were probably more interesting photos than the ones I took of a speck in the sea.

Whale breaching off San Diego

See the dot majestically breach

I wandered over the other side for some peace, and saw another dot on the horizon. I was finally going to get my moment. The whale would pass unexpectedly close to the boat, and poke its head out of the water long enough for me to briefly stroke its nose. The dot disappeared behind the wake of the boat, and then dipped out of sight. Suddenly it popped up less than 20 feet away. It was some grey seaweed wrapped around a twig.

No “HUAROO” for me.

Pelicans waiting for our return

Pelicans waiting for our return

If anyone happens to speak Japanese, I’d love to know what HUAROO means. If you don’t speak Japanese feel free to guess.





Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.


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