A Whale of a Good Time

“The whales do not sing because they have an answer. They sing because they have a song.”

~Gregory Colbert

It had been a long day.

Almost an hour and a half in, we had yet to see any whales and we spent our time simply trying to catch our footing on the boat. I was cold and the dead weight of my camera was tiring.

But let me back up. As I embarked on the quest to conquer various items on my Travel Goals list, about a month ago I saw a deal for whale watching off the Channel Islands. So I enlisted my buddy and we, along with her 4-year-old daughter (who is the real trooper in all of this) decided to tackle a 3-hour whale watching boat trip so I could cross that item off my list.

Given that it is supposed to be a whale of a whale-watching season (intended) by all accounts, I thought this would be a great adventure and opportunity to shoot. Thanks to El Nino (read: global warming), the whales were migrating much earlier as the water was heating up faster than usual along the Cali coast. I suppose that makes sense, given that it was 89 degrees this past week.

The downside of a great whale-watching season: everyone and their mom wants to go for a chance to see the gentle giants. So when we made it to the boat after our hour-and-a-half drive up from LA, the deck was packed, and there were no outside seats with the majority of people standing along the railings.

So we stood. And we steadied ourselves. And we worried about a 4-year-old going overboard. And we scoured the waters for gray whales on the way to the Channel Islands.  

On the way out to sea, Maisy (the tot) proved to be our good-luck charm. When she wanted to go to the left side of the boat, magically a pod of dolphins came play right underneath us. They splashed around, playing and jumping and tagging along with the boat for a while, giving us a show.

Dolphins make me happy! And this pod saved the boat ride out. 

Then a bit later, on the right side of the ship, we saw a lone seal, moseying along on a Sunday afternoon swim. It got us through the trip out to the Islands and made the time go faster. But at some point, we adults became acutely aware how far we were from shore and how long the ride back would be. All the while, when Maisy asked, “When are we going to see some whales?” we kept assuring her “soon,” that soon they would be coming.

When we reached the Channel Islands, Anacapa Island was so pristine and from the water we got great views of the natural archway. It was gorgeous. We lingered around the shore, hoping to see some whales (and maybe some other wildlife) relaxing, but alas, we again came up empty.

By now, an inkling of nervousness was starting to set in. “Are we really going to have come this far and not see any whales?” “Just my luck, in a whale bumper crop, I come on the one trip where there are no whales,” ran through my head as Maisy asked if the whales were sleeping. “Maybe. Maybe they are taking a nap,” her mom and I replied. But I started to wonder if they were napping, or if they were just over us watchers in their waters. 

About 20 minutes later, we let out a sigh of relief as the captain said “Finally!” over the loudspeaker. We all perked up as he said, “Looks like we have a pod ahead.” I damn near ran to the front of the boat, eager not to miss a jump or some great trick that would make me curse my slow reaction time and the weight of my camera with telephoto lens around my neck. 

Once I made it to the bow, I soon realized I had no idea what I was looking for. What exactly was whale watching? I saw no fins, no airborne, jumping mammals. Nothing. The captain then told us see the blow, as the water shot up out of the sea. Oh, I realized, they are taking breaths (duh!). I hoped to actually see one come up a bit and pointed my camera in their general direction.

(As a sidenote, I want to take a moment to express the fact that it is really, REALLY hard to photograph whales! Amazingly hard! You never know where exactly they are going to come up, and it is often for only a few seconds. And then cap it off with being on a rocking boat and trying to get in the position to shoot while trying to avoid the crowd. I found the balance between photographing the whales and really seeing and enjoying the moment quite challenging.)

While they didn’t do tricks like in the commercials on TV, the pod of six didn’t disappoint. They popped up from time to time, and when they dove back down deep, I was able to get some decent tail shots. Seeing the mass of these creatures, and the “footprints” they left behind in the water was amazing. And they didn’t even fully come up so we could see all of their splendor.  We hung around a bit, as this pod, which had been there since the day before, just chilled out. But clearly, they weren’t too interested in the humans, so at some point, we had to leave and head back to shore. That’s when we ran into a juvenile whale closer to shore, meandering along. He seemed interested in pacing us, as our boat was trailing right behind him. When we finally had to leave, he started to surface more behind us, as if to say “The coast is clear” (literally), and he and a buddy decided to come up and watch us sail away.

None of the whales did any magical tricks that day; they honestly didn’t seem very interested in us. They didn’t give us an amazing “show.” But they were magnificent nonetheless. One of God’s most amazing and massive creations, and we got to see them in their habitat, their home. With barely any land in sight, it certainly put things in perspective. It’s not all about us. It never is. 

All photographs are copyright of Tyra Hughley Smith. To see more whale watching photos, check out my Gallery


I am a lawyer. I am a journalist. I am a writer. I am a photographer. And I love to travel.

28 comments on “A Whale of a Good Time”

  1. What an amazing opportunity to view the whales and dolphins! My children and I would love to experience such an awesome trip.

  2. I have never had the opportunity to go whale watching, but it has been something I have wanted to do for a long time. These photographs are gorgeous and definitely promise a fulfilling experience.

  3. I’ve only seen two dolphins jumping out of the water in the wild, and it’s such a happy experience. I would like to take a boat tour to see them and whales one of these days.

  4. I’m glad you had a happy ending for your whale watching excursion, even if it wasn’t like you fully intended. The pictures you got are good ones!

  5. Those are awesome pics! Thank you for sharing! It brings me back to the time when we went whale watching in Hawaii and I spotted a mommy whale and her calf and was able to capture both their tails on film! Amazing!

  6. Wow I am obsessed with whales. So this, would be like heaven for me! I have wanted to see them in their natural habitat my whole life. These photos are awesome!

  7. I went whale watching several times on school field trips. I was always worried they were going to tip our boat over! Haha! You really captured some great shots! Thank goodness for your lucky charm 😉

  8. The Channel islands look beautiful! So I also did whale watching in Monterey and you are looking to have seen those whales! I did not enjoy my cold bumpy and windy boat ride and we barely caught a glimpse of one from a far. But it was on my bucket list and I was proud of myself for doing it and solo! The 4 year old sounds so brave and cute!

  9. I love this quote: “The whales do not sing because they have an answer. They sing because they have a song.” ~Gregory Colbert
    And I love the photos too. Thanks for sharing.

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