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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Mom Tested: Whale Watching


Mom Tested: Whale watching

Is a whale watching adventure with children all it’s cracked up to be?

By Nina Garin

U-T San Diego Photo

U-T San Diego Photo

Whale watching is one of San Diego’s more popular winter activities.

Every year, as the mammals make their way south to Baja, they can be easily spotted just a few miles off the coast. And with so many companies offering tours, you can really get up close to the whales and other sea animals as they swim by.

This certainly sounds like a fantastic activity to do with children — you’ve got a boat ride, they’re learning about sea life and you get several uninterrupted hours of quality family time.

But is it really so fantastic?

Along with the adventure, there’s plenty of potential for disaster, including seasickness and overwhelming boredom.

So in this month’s installment of Mom-Tested, Mom-Approved we go on a 3½-hour Hornblower tour to find out if whale watching is actually all it’s cracked up to be.

Hornblower Cruises Whale Watching Tour

When: 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily through March 31; 9:30 a.m. April 1 to 27. (April dates may change depending on ocean activity.)

Where: Navy Pier, 970 North Harbor Drive, Embarcadero

Tickets: $37 to $40, with children discounts available

Telephone: (888) 467-6256



Hornblower, as well as many other companies, offers trips that average about $40 per person (kids sometimes ride for half price). The season began in December with whales headed south, and continues through mid-April with the mammals heading back north. Rebecca Milkey, a spokeswoman for Hornblower Cruises, said there’s been a lot of activity this season, with plenty of grays, humpbacks and dolphins spotted almost daily.


The key to a successful whale-watching trip is to be as prepared as possible. This means pre-ordering your tickets for minimal line waiting, having cash handy for parking and snacks, checking weather conditions to know how many sweaters and jackets you’ll inevitably end up carrying, and stocking up on Dramamine.

You can also temper expectations by checking, a blog that gives detailed accounts of what’s spotted in the ocean each day.

Tip: Read the Dramamine label! The anti-nausea medicine can make you drowsy; even the non-drowsy formula.

Gray whales, seen surfacing off the coast of San Diego, can usually be spotted from December through mid April. u-t file photos


While you may be tempted to find metered parking along the Embarcadero, it’s worth the $10 to park in the USS Midway Museum parking lot. It’s an easy walk, mostly away from heavy traffic, to the ticket booth and the boat. And it really pays off when you disembark and want nothing more than to be close to your car.

People begin lining up 30 to 45 minutes before the scheduled boarding time, which translates into a lot of chatty children looking to make new friends.

Meltdown probability: Low to medium — the preboarding excitement helps keep everyone calm.

Rating: 4 out of 5 happy faces


Most people want to sit on the ship’s top, outdoor level. There are plenty of benches and tables there, but on a busy day not everyone will get to sit in that prime location. There are some outdoor spots on the second level, too, but the remaining seats are indoors. Don’t be too disappointed if that’s where you end up, as it’s a long trip and most people move around the boat anyway.

Meltdown probability: Low to medium

Rating: 4 out of 5 happy faces


It takes about 30 minutes to get out of the bay and into the ocean, and that’s an easy ride that takes you by various local landmarks, including the Cabrillo National Monument. Once the boat reaches the Pacific, things get more choppy and the boat slows down as it tries to pinpoint whale activity.

The ship’s captain does a good job of explaining what’s going on, and there are really friendly volunteers from the San Diego Natural History Museum on board to talk about whale migration or share fun facts.

Still, the novelty of being on a boat ride eventually wears off, so it’s a good idea to bring crayons, paper, a book or even toys as a distraction. (Unless you’re OK with walking a toddler back and forth for hours, or hearing “I’m bored” a million times.)

Tip: Put your cellphone on airplane mode as the ship may cross into Mexico and you’ll get hit with roaming charges.

Meltdown probability: High. It’s going to happen sometime on the trip. Accept it.

Rating: 3 out of 5 happy faces


The top deck of the boat has a snack stand where you can find sodas, candy bars, crackers, sandwiches and salads that range from $1 to $15. There’s also a full bar. Lots of passengers opt to bring their own food, and there are indoor tables on the second level that still offer a full view of the ocean.

Meltdown probability: Medium to high, especially if children spot all those candy options.

Rating: 4 out of 5 happy faces


It’s very likely that along the way to finding gray or humpback whales, you’ll run into dolphins. On this particular trip, there were hundreds of them playfully swimming and leaping close to the ship, captivating everyone.

Whales move a lot more slowly and are much harder to spot. And when you finally do see one, you’re either looking at a spout of water or, if you’re lucky, a tail. While adults can appreciate the rarity and excitement of being so close to wild animals, children just want more playful dolphins.

Even though most kids are ready to move on after one or two spottings, the boat stays out for at least another hour.

Meltdown probability: Medium, depending on ocean activity.

Rating: 4 out of 5 happy faces


It’s feels like it takes forever. The Dramamine drowsy period’s probably kicking in. Everyone is sick of each other. Good thing the Natural History Museum volunteers have a short presentation to take the edge off.

Meltdown probability: Inevitable

Rating: 1 out of 5 happy faces


Even though there’s a lot of waiting and whining, it truly is exciting to see whales up close. Spotting whales takes patience, silence and concentration but the experience (and the investment) is definitely worth it for older elementary school kids to teens. Those with younger families may want to seek out a shorter, 90-minute excursion or wait a few years.

Rating: 4 out of 5 happy faces

San Diego Whale Watching Report for 2/20-2/26

San Diego Whale Report 2014 Season


Morning Cruise

Afternoon Cruise



6 gray whales, 40 common dolphin and pacific white sided dolphin


5 gray whales, 20 common dolphin around the bay


AM:  The morning crew saw 6 northbound gray whales including a mother and calf.  Pacific white-sided dolphins were also seen on the morning cruise and all within 2-3 miles of land.

PM:  The afternoon cruise was just as exciting and we had many passengers who had escaped the “polar vortex” that continues to grip the northern parts of the U.S.  The sun shined brightly on the guests from Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois Michigan, Wisconsin and also Germany and Belgium.  We saw both north and south bound whales in the afternoon and the southbound whales showed us a breach, some spy-hopping and even some “courtship” behavior.  The two northbound whales were on the move to get back to the feeding grounds.  The stop at the bait docks gave passengers views of the sea lions, egrets, cormorants and brown pelicans.  Captain Nick and crew led us back home to the dock and we all had a nice relaxing day on the water.  Calm seas and sunshine.  We are truly blessed.


 12 gray whales and 100 common dolphin

Pod of 7 gray whales

AM: 12 gray whales and 100 common dolphin

PM:  We had a pod of 7 wonderful huge gray whales coming from Mexico.  We noticed blows in the distance and got close enough to hear them breathe for our entire time out at the 9 mile bank.  Seeing 7 gray whales together, spouting and sometimes fluking, one after another is an exciting sight.  We see large numbers like this much more often on the North-bound migration, which now has definitely started.
They gave us a spectacular showing!


2 gray whales

3 gray whales, 100 common dolphin

AM:  2 gray whales seen today.  The first was shy, zig-zagging all over heading south.  The second was comfortable with the boat staying near the surface, snorkeling and heading south as well.            .

PM:  A beautiful calm day with fluffy clouds.  A group of at least 30 common dolphins greeted us on the way out to an awesome mating of two gray whales surrounded by 50 bottlenose dolphins which we could clearly hear breathing.


6 gray whales, 75 common dolphin and pacific white sided dolphin

3 gray whales, 200 common dolphin

Both trips were successful with many whales and many dolphins. We saw some great shows!


One pair of gray whales, 20 common dolphin


5 gray whales

AM:  There were 2 gray whales that swam in all directions.  They appeared to be mating part of the time.  We saw many blows and some tail flukes as they seemed to be swimming in circles.  We also saw about 10 common dolphins that stopped by for a quick play in the bow and stern waves.  The water was calm and everyone enjoyed their views of the whales.

PM:  We came across 5 gray whales that were mating. Lots of great views.  Passengers were very excited.


2 gray whales, 20 pacific white sided dolphin, 20 common dolphin

6 gray whales, 30 pacific white sided dolphin

AM:  We saw a nice pair of southbound gray whales and later on in the cruise a pair of northbound juveniles.

PM:  We saw 3 pairs of gray whales during this cruise


No sightings

4 gray whales, 20 common dolphin

AM:  Large swells, no sightings of whales.  Returned to dock early. 

PM:  Great sightings of 2 adults and 2 calves, about 20 common dolphins.

San Diego Whale Watching Report for 2/13-2/19

San Diego Whale Report 2014 Season


Morning Cruise

Afternoon Cruise



3 gray whales

2 gray whales, 25 pacific white sided dolphin

AM: We found a calf pair headed south. The calf did a dive, so it was not a newborn and breached 2 times in a row, 100 yards from the boat! Good visibility.

PM: Followed 2 adults heading south. Lots of blows and flukes. We then came across 25 Pacific white sided dolphins. Several bow-riding the boat to the delight of the passengers!


3 gray whales

4 gray whales

AM: We had 3 gray whales, one pair and a single. Two were juveniles and one was an adult.

PM: Saw 4 gray whales total. All southbound. The first two were observed at San Diego Buoy #1. They appeared to be both adult whales.

During this cruise, there was heavy Navy traffic in the area. The first of three submarines and the first of two navy missile cruisers. Various helicopters.
The second two were juveniles and were spotted along the kelp beds about three miles south of Point Loma. The whales remained on a straight course and we were able to observe them for at least 45 minutes or more. They stayed together as they went south.

At the entrance to San Diego harbor was the second submarine and another navy cruiser. The whales acted by spy hopping twice and breaching twice. We assumed the whales needed to see the various ships near them and in their path. So the whales headed more Southwest. We were lucky that they came so close to us and gave us a great view.
On our way back toward the Harbor, a third submarine surfaced about 400 yards from our stern. It was awesome! In the bay we saw one the subs
transferring their crew to a tugboat while another crew boarded. The sub was turned around and pointed out of the harbor.


1 gray whale, 10 common dolphin

2 juvenile gray whales, 12 common dolphin

AM: 2 miles off SD buoy 1 for single gray whale 10 common dolphin.

PM: 2 miles off Hill Street we saw a pair of juvenile gray whales. We also saw 12 common dolphins.


4 gray whales

2 gray whales, 1 fin back whale

Great day out on the bay! The fin back whale was great to watch and absolutely magnificent!


5 gray whales, 50 pacific white sided dolphin

3 gray whales, 50 common dolphin

AM: 4 adult gray whales and 1 juvenile. 1 blow of a fin back whale in the distance. We also saw 50 pacific white sided dolphins

PM:  3 juvenile gray whales south bound and 50 common dolphin


2 grays both juvenile

6 total whales: 4 south bound gray whales, all adult and lots of tail flukes. 2 north bound whales too

AM: Lovely, sunny morning, clear skies and great visibility. Adventure Hornblower found 2 gray whales not very far offshore, heading south on their migration. Judging by their size and meandering behavior the volunteers and captain decided they must be sub-adults, juvenile whales trying to figure out if they wanted to go all the way to the lagoons of Baja, Mexico or hang around offshore San Diego like other travelers defrosting from many areas of the world not having our fantastic weather.

PM cruise: What a delight as these clear skies and calm seas make everyone’s voyage enjoyable. Time to sit back on deck, have a snack or beverage and watch the ocean waves roll on by. We were not too far offshore, in the vicinity of Buoy No. 1, when we spotted 4 strong blows. What a sight! 4 mature gray whales traveling very close together. Their dives were synchronized so that everyone on board got excellent photos of those magnificent flukes as they dove. After watching these whales for a while, Captain Nick decided to head offshore to see if possibly we might encounter some fin or humpback whales. But we didn’t go very far (less than 5 miles) when we spotted blows up ahead and were delightfully surprised to see that they were 2 gray whales and that they were heading north on their migration. These were the first northbound whales of our 2014 season and we were all thrilled to explain that part of the journey of these gray whales to guests from as close as South Park, San Diego to Staten Island, New York to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Another fantastic whale watching adventure with Hornblower Cruises. Thanks, Captain Nick.

Hornblower to Launch New Blue Whale Watching Cruises this Summer!

Blue Whale Watching Adventures to begin on July 5, 2014
Catalina Londono_blue whale

For the first time ever, Hornblower Cruises & Events will embark on Blue Whale Watching Adventure Cruises this summer.  In the last five years, the blue whale migration has grown in San Diego, with over a thousand whales being spotted in a single previous season. Passengers can now experience of the wonder of watching the largest mammal on earth as it migrates through the waters off the San Diego coast.

Hornblower Cruises & Events is offering a 4-hour Blue Whale Watching Adventure, with an opportunity to spot whales, sea lions, and dolphins, as well as all the sights of San Diego Bay.  Included in the adventure is live narration on marine life by Hornblower’s experienced captains and volunteer naturalists from the San Diego Natural History Museum (theNat).  Snack bars on board feature hot food, a full bar and souvenirs.

Hornblower Cruises’ experienced captains and crew know the best places to find whales and the tours head directly to the prime viewing areas off of San Diego’s coast.  Blue whales migrate along the California coast from July through early September.  They are often accompanied by the second largest whale, the finback.  The size of the two whales makes for some great whale watching experiences.  Also spotted is the California favorite, the humpback whale.  Passengers will see massive whale tails, along with the whales feeding on huge quantities of krill.

Cruise Details & How to Buy Tickets: For reservations call 619-686-8715 or visit the website,

Hornblower Cruises & Events’ Blue Whale Watching Adventure will sail every Saturday and Sunday from July 5 to August 31.  Passengers will board at 8:45am and sail from 9:00am to 1:00pm. Reservations are now open and tickets cost $75 for adults, $40 for children ages 4 to 12 and $73 for seniors.  Children under four are free.  Groups of 20 or more can arrange outings at a discount.  To follow whale watching season and to purchase tickets, visit the San Diego Whale Report at


Hornblower Cruises & Events has been the leading charter yacht and public dining cruise company for over 32 years.  The company has operates 32 vessels in San Francisco, Berkeley, Sacramento, Long Beach, Newport Beach, Marina Del Rey, San Diego and New York City.  In addition, Hornblower San Diego offers seasonal Whale and Dolphin Watching Adventures and year round Harbor Cruises.  For more information visit,


The Inspiration Behind new local Book about Whale Watching in San Diego


Breaching Gray Whale Photo taken by Michael Roeder on 2/19/14 from Hornblower Cruises Whale Watching.

Michael Roeder and Scotty Schmidt have been aboard Hornblower’s Whale Watching Cruises more often than some of the actual Hornblower Captains! Why? Michael and Scotty just finished a book called “1000 Whales in a Year”. The book is for sale on Hornblower’s Whale Watching Cruises and on almost any given day you can get an autograph from the authors Mike and Scotty and even a photo with the pair of dedicated whale enthusiasts. The book’s goal was to to find one thousand whales in one year on the Pacific Ocean near San Diego. However there is so much more that inspired the book: a band of kindred spirits, people with a common bond(whales in the wild) and each in need of a little special healing.

Scotty says: I’m a US Army combat veteran who experienced many difficulties adjusting back to civilian life. I found myself searching for something for a long time, but I didn’t know what. Now I still find myself searching for something……whales, but they are something I can find! Scotty Schmidt.

Mike says: I’d recently retired and being a bit reclusive anyway, was looking for something social not too threatening. Kim and Dennis invite us on a whale watching cruise, my wife and I bought a season pass on Hornblower, we met Scotty and we joined the gang.* “…our motivation for spending all this time on the water in one year. After some calculations, we found we had spent an average of one hour per whale. Yes its obsessive behavior, we know. We are obsessive people. Whale watching is addictive and if you have an additive personality type you may be drawn in too. We never intended to spend 1000 hours watching, see 1000 whales or write this 100 page book- these evolved as our relationships with each other and the whales, grew.” Michael Roeder

Kim says: We are enthusiastic boaters, with extensive sailing experience as well as having worked with the US Navy and US Coast Guard Auxiliary.  We’ve spent lots of time near or on the water.  When we first started whale watching in February 2013, we saw it as just another opportunity to be on the water.  We were also looking for some peace and quiet after the loss of a service member in our family.   Seeing these majestic whales so close to our shore had an unbelievable positive impact to our life.  We met Scotty on the Hornblower and found a kindred soul.  The whales pulled us up to the rail, brought us out of ourselves and together as friends on a common quest.   Kim and Dennis Usrey.

The book also has an electronic version on the Apple iBook store in case you’d like to get your hands on this gem. Visit their website.


* Yes you too can “join the gang”. Purchase a season whale watching pass on Hornblower Cruises, for unlimited whale watching cruises during the Gray Whale Watching season from Dec. to April. We look forward to seeing you onboard too!