Once limited to the winter months, whale watching off San Diego is now a year-round activity that comes with a guarantee of a sighting.
On a recent day on the Pacific Ocean, it took less than an hour away from the dock for Captain Troy Sears to spot two juvenile gray whales meandering south toward Baja California.
By the time the cruise aboard the 139-foot (42-metre) yacht America ended four hours later, the passengers had seen 12 whales, were fully briefed on their migration from Alaska to Mexico and back, and learned a bit about the America's Cup.
"It was beautiful and it was original," said Tracy Chavous of Augusta, Georgia.
"It was a lot more than I was expecting," added her husband, Emory. "It was a lot more enjoyable."
In town for a conference, they stayed over an extra day for a cruise. They chose to go out on America, a replica of the schooner that beat a fleet of British ships around the Isle of Wight in 1851 to win the trophy that became the America's Cup.
"I started out wanting to sail and then I saw there was a sailboat that took you whale watching," Tracy Chavous said. "That was awesome. And then there was a guarantee of seeing the whales. It was traditional and we wanted to see people sailing. That's what we got."
A trip aboard America is a unique way to watch whales and dolphins on the Pacific, although cruises are also available through several other companies. All guarantee a sighting. If there isn't one, passengers can return for a free trip. Only Sears, who owns Next Level Sailing, offers a no-seasickness guarantee.
Joe Terzi, president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, recently said San Diego should be considered the world's No. 1 destination for whale watching.
Sears, who estimates he's spent 7,000 days on the water, backs it up.
The probability of seeing whales is near 100 percent, he said, and eight different species can be seen throughout the year, almost always in ideal weather and sea conditions.
"There are lots of whales off Antarctica but you're not going to like the conditions," Sears said while steering his two-masted boat, with 6,000 square feet (557 square meters) of sails, onto the ocean.
Sears grew up in San Diego and remembers when whale watching was just during the winter.
An international moratorium on whale hunting in the 1980s, honored by most nations, helped change that.
"We stopped hunting these animals and guess what? They've come back. They are recovering and we get the benefit of that," he said.
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Gray and blue whales provide the most sightings off San Diego, followed by humpbacks and fins, Sears said. Pilot, orcas, minke and sperm whales are less common.
Tour operators started seeing grays around the first of December, and there's been an increase of about 50 percent this season. The last grays will be northbound cows and calves around the middle to end of May. By then, fins and humpbacks have come into the area.
The first blue whales will show around the middle of April, with an abundance of fins and blues through the summer. The last blue whale departs around the time the first gray whales reach Southern California.
"Blue whales are game-changers," Sears said. "They're the biggest animal to live, bigger than any dinosaur. They're fantastic to look at because they're beautiful animals."
As many as 20 can be seen in one trip during the peak season.
Every day provides a different scenario, Sears said.
Heading out to the Coronado Canyon, a deep ridge line about 9 miles offshore that gray whales follow while heading north, Sears spotted two whales off the starboard bow.
"I bet they haven't seen a boat in a while," Sears told the passengers.
Shortly after, he noticed three more whales. With Sears keeping his boat the required 100 yards away, the five whales eventually linked up.
San Diego is a Navy town, so passengers see a lot more than whales.
They got a close-up look at the 844-foot (257-meter) amphibious assault ship, which was taking on weapons at Naval Air Station North Island. Navy helicopters constantly fly overhead. At one point Sears noticed that the submarine USS Jimmy Carter had surfaced in the distance and was heading into San Diego Bay while a destroyer sailed out to sea.
"Whale watching trips are much more than whale watching," said Sears, an America's Cup aficionado who drove a support boat for Oracle Team USA when it trained in San Diego before the 2010 Cup. "It's a chance to see what's going on out on San Diego Bay and the ocean."
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