The Time I Went Whale Watching on Dry Land

“Behind the sailboat! In the wake!”

The words rang out as we reached Point Vicente. Shimmering on our left was the Pacific Ocean, its waves bluer and brighter than California’s mid-morning haze. On our right, several men and women were leaning across the low stone wall of the patio. They had already raised their binoculars, obscuring their faces, but the awe, the wonder, that spilled out of their voices told me that they were smiling.

A lighthouse overlooking the Pacific Ocean (Point Vicente, Rancho Palos Verdes, California).
A lighthouse overlooking the Pacific Ocean (Point Vicente, Rancho Palos Verdes, California).
Point Vicente, Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Photo by Whitney Brown.

“It’s right behind the sailboat!”

I stared at the water. With its tall rigging, the sailboat was impossible to miss. But the cause of the excitement, a gray whale swimming southward, was invisible to my naked, untrained eye.

“See its print?”

The whale watchers were speaking to each other, not to us. They were directing their full attention at the ocean, and they probably didn’t realize that we stood nearby. The whale, for its part, was swimming a few feet below the waves, or at least that’s what the watchers made it sound like. One of them had noticed the whale just before my husband and I had arrived, and the flukeprint — a glassy circle on the ocean’s surface, a vortex created underwater and pushed skyward as the whale pumped its tail — was proof of the animal’s passage. Even after the whale moved out of the watchers’ line of vision, the print lingered for a while, letting everyone know exactly where the whale had been.

Everyone except Talmage and me. We never saw the whale or the print, but oddly enough, that didn’t disappoint us. It invigorated us, especially me. We had descended on Point Vicente at the exact same moment as a whale had, and something about that, something about moving in synchrony with an ocean giant, felt thrilling.

Also, another whale would swim by soon, I thought. No question.

A gray whale and her calf swim through the bright waters of Malibu, California.
A gray whale and her calf swim through the bright waters of Malibu, California.
A gray whale and her calf swim past Malibu, California. Photo by Cameron Venti via Unsplash.

Point Vicente, not far from Los Angeles, is poised on the edge of the continent. Its cliffs rear their heads high above the ocean, providing an incredible view of the water and an occasional view of the water’s inhabitants. Of course, for the whales swimming past, Point Vicente is just a wall, unbreachable, unfriendly to flippered animals. It marks the eastern edge of the whales’ world: no entry, do not pass, unsafe. But for me, from up high, Point Vicente was a vantage point where I could peer into the ocean, or try to, where I could look beyond my land-based life. The Channel Islands hovered near the farthest reaches of the horizon, but past the islands, I knew, all was blue for millions of square miles.

Still in awe at our almost-encounter, Talmage and I ventured along the clifftop trail, making our way to the north as the unseen whale made its way to Baja California. About 200 feet below the trail, down at sea level, foamy white waves crashed onto rocks. Some sighed, and others hissed, as they disintegrated on pocket-sized beaches, scattering their mass on sand, if only for a moment, before the droplets slid back into the sea.

With the sky and the ocean stretching out before me, all I wanted was to spot passing whales, but first, I needed to find a pair of binoculars. So Talmage and I retraced our steps, returning to the place where the watchers were. They waited for the whales from a patio outside the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, a small museum that — luckily for me — lends binoculars to its visitors.

Talmage, who had come to Point Vicente for me as much as he had come for the gray whales, allowed himself to settle onto a park bench, but I headed inside. The man behind the desk gave me a pair of binoculars in exchange for my keys, then told me to go to the patio, where the whale watchers included members of the American Cetacean Society. They could answer my questions, he said, and direct me toward anything worth seeing.

A lone gray whale breaches the surface of the water in Depoe Bay, Oregon.
A lone gray whale breaches the surface of the water in Depoe Bay, Oregon.
A gray whale breaches the surface in Depoe Bay, Oregon. Photo by Dan Meyers via Unsplash.

I thanked him, and I meant my thanks, and I meant to take his advice. But when I emerged from the museum, my eagerness overtook me, and the cliff’s edge looked like a more inviting place to watch whales go by. I live in a landlocked state, after all, and most of the time, 700 miles of desert divide me from the ocean. On this, a rare day that I got to spend on the coast, I wanted the boundaries of land and sea to dissolve, to dissipate into nothingness. I wanted to erase the lines that divided water from air. I wanted to be as close to the whales as I could.

But of course, I didn’t really want that. Back at home, I had compared website after website of L.A.-based whale watching tours, and while I was certain that each boat captain cared about the whales and wanted to protect them, I had also found some research suggesting that traditional whale watching threatens the animals it’s supposed to honor. I had worried about engine noise drowning out the songs that whales use to communicate. I had worried when I learned that the boats sometimes inch too close to the whales. So Talmage and I had planned a trip to the cliffs of Point Vicente instead.

I knew that other people would join whale watching tours in Southern California on the same day that Talmage and I headed to the cliffs. I recognized that I was probably being paranoid. But I couldn’t risk hurting a whale, even if that risk was small, even though the research had offered mixed conclusions on whether whale watching actually hurts whales.

I had chosen to stay away from the place where the boundaries between land and sea dissolve, but I would go to the cliff’s edge, where the lines blurred.

As I raised my binoculars, I saw the ocean expanding and contracting atop the waves, droplets sparkling in the apex before being dragged into a sapphire trough. The ocean, the way I saw it, was something to love, dream about, never take for granted. I trained my new set of eyes on the horizon and scanned the sea from south to north. Then I did it again. And again. Each time, I focused on a new detail: a buoy. A boat. A bird streaking across the sky. I waited, asking the ocean for the gift of a whale sighting. I was patient, maybe because I knew that the ocean would give me something to hold onto. Eventually.

A pod of dolphins swims past Dana Point, California. Several fins appear above the surface of the water.
A pod of dolphins swims past Dana Point, California. Several fins appear above the surface of the water.
A pod of dolphins passes Dana Point, California. Photo by Kevin Ortiz via Unsplash.

The minutes rolled by, maybe 10 or 15 of them, and then I saw something. A dorsal fin slicing its way through the waves. Then another. And another. And another.

Rising from the blue of the ocean to the blue of the sky was the sleek back of a dolphin. Then another. And another. And another.

They were hunting for fish, rising from water to sky, falling from sky to water. A group of seabirds glided above them, eager to feast on the fish that the dolphins wanted too. As I watched, I almost forgot about everything else in the world. I almost forgot to breathe. All that mattered were the binoculars in my hands and the dolphins in the water.

I followed the pod for as long as possible, the binoculars sliding slowly from left to right, south to north. When the dolphins disappeared from view, someone nearby exhaled slowly. I hadn’t realized that a woman had stepped up to the rail beside me, but I was happy that she had seen the same thing, glad that she had let out the breath I had been holding onto. I lowered my binoculars to nod at her. Then I looked at the water unaided.

The ocean was alive. The ocean was near. The ocean was home. Not for me. Not for the woman at the rail, or for Talmage on his park bench. But for so many others.

There were more gray whales out there. I was sure of it. And there were more dolphins, more fish. There were crabs and octopi and seals and corals and rays. There was an entire ecosystem, a web of ecosystems.

A gray whale dives below the surface near Depoe Bay, Oregon.
A gray whale dives below the surface near Depoe Bay, Oregon.
A gray whale dives below the surface near Depoe Bay, Oregon. Photo by Dan Meyers via Unsplash.

I spent a few more minutes raking the horizon, both with and without binoculars, before finally retreating to the patio. There, a whiteboard bearing the title Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project noted that the whale watchers had spotted 17 southbound whales that day, as well as one swimming northward. At the edge of the patio, facing the sea, two women sat in movie star chairs. They had placed carpet samples on the stone wall in front of them, presumably to cushion their elbows as they gazed through their binoculars. The data they collected that day was going to be recorded, saved, aggregated. It would help the American Cetacean Society understand nearshore migration patterns, would let humans understand gray whales a little bit better.

It’s a comforting discovery, the fact that people track the gray whales’ migration like this. It’s a sign of kindness, somehow, or friendship, or solidarity, offered by a group of land-dwelling people to a group of ocean-dwelling whales. I see you, the watchers say to the whales. You matter to me. You matter so much that I’m going to take notes on who you are and where you’re going. I’m going to gaze at the ocean this morning, and I’m going to make whales like you my focus.

From my landlocked home, I can think about the ocean, daydream about it, worry about how plastic and carbon are hurting its inhabitants. But at Point Vicente, people can actually see the Pacific, hear it, and smell it. Try to dissolve the boundaries between human and animal, land and sea, air and water. Some of those boundaries are real and important, I know, but others are imagined. Humans are animals, after all, and what we do on land, whales, dolphins, sharks, and octopi feel in the ocean.

A sidewalk winds past palm trees at Point Vicente.
A sidewalk winds past palm trees at Point Vicente.
A sidewalk winds through the park at Point Vicente, Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Photo by Whitney Brown.

A newcomer joined us on the patio and asked how the morning had been.

“Lots of sightings early on, then another handful from 7:30 to 9:45,” a woman reported from her movie star chair. “Nothing since then.”

As luck would have it, Talmage and I had gotten to Point Vicente at exactly 9:45. In the instant that we had arrived, the people on the patio had seen the gray whale, and even if we hadn’t, we had at least known that the whale was there. It still felt like a gift from the ocean, that chance encounter.

Just 18 whales that day, 18 out of the hundreds that would swim past Point Vicente in the coming months. Just one pod of dolphins. Just a few people on the edge of a continent.

Just a morning when I spotted dolphins through binoculars.

Just a place on the coast where the boundaries get blurry.

Whitney Brown is a travel writer who believes in integrating climate and environmental themes into her work. She also loves archaeology and floral design.

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