One Very Fine Fin Whale

It’s a perfect morning in Santa Barbara, cool and fogless. Salty smooth water laps the harbor wood just below my feet. Already my eye is drawn to the sea lions bobbing on buoys just beyond the pier, their dark wet pelts warming in the sun’s early light. Dave sees me coming and smiles from the wheel house. I wave, hand high overhead, as I skip down the dock ramp and then up three swift steps to board the Condor Express. Known for both speed and comfort, this boat is considered by many naturalists to be the best whale-watching vessel on the entire Pacific coast.

Dave Beezer, friend and today’s captain, has generously invited me along for the morning excursion. It’s been a while since my last visit and I’m excited to catch up with him as ticketed passengers come aboard. At 9am, Dave slowly maneuvers our craft out of the harbor and I find myself looking back on Santa Barbara, tiers of red-roofed mission-style houses held in a frame of voluptuous mountains. I am always taken by the way the city’s charm spills down from the green hills to the wide sandy beach that lies as a carpet before a crystalline cove. The cove we are now departing for deeper broth.

It’s not long before we are surrounded by our first curious and playful pod of Delphinis: common dolphins. They arc over and over, folding the water like silver ribbons. Their dance leads us to a feeding site where pelicans and gulls lift from the frenzy as we arrive. Everyone loves marine mammals, but sea birds are equally divine!

Dave motors the Condor Express west looking for Grey whales migrating from Baja to Alaska. Many have been seen in the previous days and we are hopeful. But, alas, no Greys today. Such is the unpredictability of nature. However, we do spot a sea otter. His small brown body bobs in our wake as we turn about for a closer look. In typical otter fashion, he floats on his back, webbed hands resting across his chest like a man preparing for a nap. Occasionally he tumbles and rolls before popping back into position—otters do not have a layer of blubber to keep them warm, rather they have ~200 thousand strands of hair per centimeter and rely on an insulating layer of air trapped in their fur—the rolling is done to fluff up and blow air between hairs for protection. We are lucky, this handsome fellow is tolerant and allows us plenty of observation time before disappearing in search of peace and abalone.

We continue our search for whales. Humpbacks maybe? They’ve been around reliably this week, too. We search and search… but no joy. 

Then suddenly a large figure surfaces ahead on the port side—definitely a whale! A ragged thrill runs through the passengers as gasps and giggles bring us to our feet. The whale dives. Dave deftly shifts course and slows to an idle when we arrive at the “footprint” (a slick patch of water made by a whale’s tail when diving). Our boat totters like a happy drunk, swaying over the gentle waves. Everyone is pinned against the railing in anticipation as we all wait for the next inhalation.

The down time is counted. One minute. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. We wait.

At last a towering blow lifts to the sky just abeam the Condor Express! Twin blow holes suck in an immense amount of air, followed into the sunlight by a long stretch of blackish skin, then a small sharp dorsal fin. It’s a Fin Whale! What a treat! This is the second largest living species on the whole planet; only the Blue whale is bigger. And this beautiful behemoth is in no rush. It takes several easy breaths at the surface, offering a wonderful close up view before diving again. We remain patient and each breathing cycle delivers more opportunities to oogle the awesome size and splendor of this finback whale!

Time stretches and it seems too soon we must go. Dave points the Condor Express toward the harbor. My heart is still pattering from all that we have seen and a persistence smile pins my cheeks to my earlobes. Sea lions, dolphins, pelicans, otters and whales, all in just a few short hours. I am giddy. A natural high. Quite literally—I’m hopped up on wildlife. And all I can think on our way back to shore is what extraordinary magic exists in this world!

If you would like to see whales and other marine life from the Condor Express, visit

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