"It's just hit and miss ? it's 50-50, really," Capt. Chris Goble said.
A water spout or a "footprint" ? a slick mark on the water surface created by a whale's tail ? are the easiest signs to spot, Goble said.
"The only way to find a whale is to look for them with your eyes," he told passengers on a recent trip aboard the whale-watching boat.
Schoolchildren from Santa Ana's Lincoln Elementary School and Costa Mesa's TeWinkle Middle School packed the boat. Clinging to the wooden railings of the Freelance, the kids scanned the water.
Off the northern coast of Laguna, the captain suddenly saw a footprint and alerted the passengers. Throwing the boat into neutral, he quieted the engine and told everyone to keep their voices down, so as to not scare the whale.
Then they appeared ? the barnacled backs of two gray whales, swimming 100 yards from the boat. The whales, about 30 to 40 feet long, appeared and then disappeared, captivating the kids and other whale watchers for more than 30 minutes.
The whales typically go underwater for three to five minutes, then resurface, Goble said. Paulette Dunn, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary, said the fourth- and fifth-graders had studied whales before the trip.
"Most of them have never been on a boat, so this is just a great opportunity," Dunn said.
Gray whales head to Baja California to calve in the winter. In March, adults and young swim to Alaska.
Although the grays are the most common, whale watchers have also spotted humpbacks, killer whales and a Dall's porpoise off the Orange County coast.
""It really is a cool thing," said Costa Mesa resident Burgess Norminton, who's sailed for most of his life and spotted whales all over the world.
"I've had them come up in the middle of the night and almost feel their breath," he said. cpt.10-happs-1-CPhotoInfoGN1OOMOL20060310iafsf7kfDOUGLAS ZIMMERMAN / DAILY PILOT(LA)Veteran whale watcher Takabumi Konishi stares off Pelican Point in Crystal Cove State Park in search of surfacing gray whales, which can be spotted by their water spout.