Review: Whale Watching with Island Packers Cruises

A closer look at Island Packers' trips to see marine wildlife off the Channel Islands. 

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip. It started from Ventura Harbor aboard a large and clean ship. Again, the three-hour tour didn't go quite as planned. But this time, the surprises were welcome. 

Yesterday, I headed out with Island Packers Cruises to try and see some whales. (Their winter whale watching trips start the day after Christmas and run halfway through April.) We got to Ventura Harbor with enough time to grab some impressive fish sandwiches from The Parlor. And then, the magic happened.

Almost immediately after leaving the harbor, we saw a large patch of birds in the distance. Our captain angled the boat towards it, and as we drew nearer the scene transformed. Not only were the sea's feathered friends grabbing a nice lunch, they were joined by dolphins. My initial thought was oh cool, a couple dolphins! But soon dozens of common dolphins surrounded the boat, playing around us. It was probably luck to come across so many of the ocean's smartest, most social animals right after leaving shore, but it definitely got the trip off to a nice start.

As we continued on, angling past the oil platforms, the boat suddenly turned quickly. Excited, I wondered what we'd see. Then I spotted a glossy, purple mass bobbing in the ocean. "This isn't wildlife, it's the enemy of it," the captain explained. The crew proceeded to pluck three mylar balloons out of the ocean. They told us that as the sun breaks them down, small fish eat them. Then dolphins eat those fish, and the plastic makes its way up the food chain. "If you have a party and there are mylar balloons, pop them and protect the ocean," the captain suggested. 

After helping keep the ocean healthy, we set out for Anacapa Island. I had no sense of the pristine beauty of the Channel Islands. Cruising around Arch Rock, the 40-foot high natural arch that juts proudly from the Pacific, was spectacular. And as we rounded the far side of Anacapa, nature again put on a show. The beaches were filled with sea lions, and we spotted a couple elephant seals, too. 

The real highlight for me was what came next - the whales. With a trained eye, the Island Packers crew spotted water spouts in the distance. Through careful watching and timing (you have to wait for the whales to resurface between soundings), the crew was able to position us right along three juvenile gray whales as they came to the surface. Their size and grace blew me away. 

The real highlight for the Island Packers crew, however, came on the way back when we spotted a great white swimming along the surface. The captain said he could count on one hand the number of times he'd seen a great white; they tend to swim well under the water out of sight. Seeing that iconic fin gliding along the water made me feel equal parts dread and awe.

I asked one of the boat volunteers if they see whales every time they set sail. "No," he laughed. "I called it whale waiting, not whale watching!" So we got lucky. But our boat's Island Packers crew consisted entirely of naturalists, experts at knowing what to look for and how to approach it. I'm confident that every time they leave the harbor, they find something to show off. 

All in all, I can't recommend Island Packers Cruises' winter whale watching tours highly enough! It was an incredible experience. And it didn't hurt that the local craft beers were $5, either.