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This spy-hopping gray whale was recently seen off our Southern California coast. This is the best time of year to catch these giant ocean mammals as they migrate south to the warm waters of Baja California. Photo courtesy OceansideWhaleWatching.com
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Winter means whale-watching season

Most people call it winter, but here in Southern California, we call it whale-watching season.

December through March is the optimum time to see some of the thousands of gray whales that migrate from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to the warm lagoons of Baja California. Here they give birth to their calves and prepare for the return trip to Alaskan waters — a round-trip that totals 10,000 miles to 12,000 miles.

Three seahorses call the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla home. They belong to one of the 47 species of seahorses, 14 of which were discovered in the last nine years. Seahorses in the wild are monogamous and some species mate for life. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Lucky for us, we don’t have to travel far to see these gray whales, as well as several types of dolphins, perhaps a shark or even a blue whale. Just head to the Oceanside Harbor or Dana Point Harbor where whale-watching tours leave several times daily. Spotting gray whales off our coast has thankfully become commonplace, which means that this once-endangered species is thriving. Gray whales can be as long as 45 feet and weigh up to nearly 100,000 pounds, so it’s no ho-hum experience when one of these leviathans surfaces next to a whale-watching boat.

Twice-daily whale-watching cruises with Flagship Cruises & Events also leave from San Diego Harbor with Birch Aquarium naturalists aboard.

And if you visit the aquarium between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Feb. 8 to Feb. 16, you can participate in Whale Fest activities. Talk to experts as they take a deep dive into whale biology, evolution and culture, conservation and habitat, and baleen and bones. Learn how to spot whales from the aquarium’s panoramic Tide-Pool Plaza.

Whale Fest weekends feature meet-ups with whale scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego or NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

“We hope to inspire curiosity with these marine mammals and empower our guests to take action to help protect them by continuing to find ways to connect with our ocean planet,” says Birch Aquarium education specialist Delanie Medina.

The aquarium also offers unique experiences with sea creatures at the other end of the size spectrum.

For the first time, visitors can go behind the scenes and see the aquarium’s groundbreaking work of breeding and caring for seahorses. The “Growing Up Seahorse” tour takes guests through seahorse exhibits with an expert to learn about the diversity and conservation status of these unique fish and how seahorses are cared for and bred.

The tour also allows guests to take a look into the breeding room to see tiny baby seahorses. (FYI: During mating season, the female deposits her eggs into the male’s pouch, where they are fertilized. The male gives birth after a two-week gestation.)

Birch Aquarium is a leader in the field of seahorse breeding conservation, and has been breeding seahorses for more than 25 years. It has shipped about 5,000 seahorses to more than 100 facilities around the world.

“Supporting breeding programs with our colleagues around the world is critical to the sustainability of our animals and our oceans,” says Jennifer Nero Moffatt, senior director of animal care, science and conservation.

For more photos and commentary, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash. Want to share your travels? Email eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

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