Joyce Daniels has her eyes on the sea.
“Oh, there’s another tall blow,” she says, excitement fringing her voice as she repositions her spotting scope with the authority of a chef with a spatula. “Oh, no, that’s a sailboat. Sorry.”
Every day from dawn until dusk during whale season, which runs from December to May, outside the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, volunteers like Daniels keep a laser focus on the blue strip of the Pacific Ocean that stretches out below them. They’re looking for gray whales that migrate through this area but may also spot dolphins, orcas, humpback whales and even sperm whales on any given day.
“Just seeing the whales is nice, but seeing the different behaviors is very interesting,” Daniels said. “Occasionally we’ll have whales get caught up with dolphins, and the whales will roll and swim on their back and all sorts of fun things. You just never know what you’re going to see. With nature, you never know what’s going to happen the next day.”
During a recent weekend trip to California, my husband and I decided to focus our time on nature, too, trading the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles for slower-paced, postcard-perfect Rancho Palos Verdes, located about 30 minutes from downtown on the Pacific coast.
A whale of a time
For 24 seasons, Daniels has been here, watching the whales.
On weekdays she arrives at noon and stays until 6 p.m. or so, and on weekends she stops by late in the day to check on what her binocular-clad peers have seen. They’re all volunteers with the American Cetacean Society Los Angeles Chapter, and their observations support the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, a long-term study of marine mammals that started in 1979.
Dressed in a pink turtleneck and khaki pants and hat, her binoculars resting momentarily on the protective square of carpet she keeps in front of her spotting station, Daniels explained the work she and other volunteers do.
“The reason we count the gray whales is because they’re on a migration going from Baja to north of Alaska. It’s a 5,000- to 7,000-mile journey. We’re sitting and watching the commute,” she said. “There are other species of whales, they may be feeding or kind of passing through, but they’re not on a regular migration, so we can’t really count them.”
Inside the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, visitors can learn even more about the whales that frequent these waters. There’s a chalkboard sign that keeps count of the season’s gray whale sightings — on the day we visited in early April, 2,684 gray whales had been spotted since the season began in December.
Visitors can also view a mural that compares the sizes of different whales and check out artifacts from Marineland, which opened in Rancho Palos Verdes in 1954, one year before Disneyland, and was the world’s largest oceanarium for a time. It closed in 1987.
There’s also a gift shop, where we purchased a lighthouse passport to use to collect stamps as we visit lighthouses across the country. Getting our first stamp was easy — the Point Vicente Lighthouse was just steps away.
Shining a light
You can’t help but be drawn to the majestic white pillar flanked by the sea and a palm tree that is the Point Vicente Lighthouse.
The lighthouse, which stands 67 feet tall, was built in 1926 in hopes of preventing ships from running aground along the rocky California shoreline and was later dimmed during World War II so it wouldn’t aid enemy navigation. Today, it still sends out its beacon across the Catalina Channel, although it’s automated now.
According to local lore, a “Lady of the Light” in a flowing gown has sometimes been spotted in its windows, pacing. Some say she’s the ghost of the first lighthouse keeper’s wife, who stumbled off the edge of a cliff one foggy night, while others maintain she waits for the return of a lover lost at sea.
The lighthouse grounds are typically closed but open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the second Saturday of each month except March, when the lighthouse is open on a different date. Even if the grounds are closed, you can still get pretty close to the lighthouse and snap some beautiful photos — be sure to keep an eye out for the Lady of the Light.
Want to make sure you get your lighthouse passport stamped? No worries about that — the adjacent Point Vicente Interpretive Center will be glad to stamp it for you.
Stay and play
Our home base for this trip was Terranea Resort, a place at which I have now stayed twice that has left an indelible imprint on me. You can walk to all of the destinations mentioned above from the resort.
Last year, my husband and I visited for the first time with our two young daughters, splashing away the hours on a pink doughnut-shaped raft in the main pool before making our way to the on-site Nelson’s restaurant with the early-bird-special set. The supple, big-as-the-plate pretzel here is the best I’ve found anywhere, but even it was overshadowed by the gray whales we spotted from our picnic table that made rhythmic arcs on the surface of the water. In California, you just can’t top Mother Nature.
During our most recent visit in April — this time my husband and I left the kids at home — nature was again on full display throughout the resort. Rabbits hopped across our path as we took morning walks on the Discovery Trail that surrounds the property, and rocks bounced off one another like gumballs in a shaken machine each time waves crashed into the shore at the on-site cove. Later in the day, when the evening chill began to creep in, we watched the sun give its pink-and-orange grand finale from the protective arms of the hot tub.
This area of California has become the place I daydream about when I’m stuck in traffic or in the waiting room at the dentist, images of things we experienced here flashing through my mind like a mental screensaver. We’re already talking about having family reunions or milestone anniversary celebrations here. I hope we get to.
But even if not, I’m glad to have laid eyes on this type of beauty and uncovered a place where, no matter what else is going on in the world, lighthouses, waves and whales can still steal the show.
IF YOU GO
Terranea Resort: Terranea is an upscale resort located about 30 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. 100 Terranea Way, Rancho Palos Verdes. 310-494-7891, terranea.com.
Point Vicente Interpretive Center: Learn about whale migration, view artifacts from Marineland and more. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 31501 Palos Verdes Drive West in Rancho Palos Verdes. 310-544-5375, rpvca.gov/Facilities/Facility/Details/Point-Vicente-Interpretive-Center-13.
The ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project: American Cetacean Society Los Angeles Chapter volunteers spot whales daily from dawn to dusk outside the Point Vicente Interpretive Center during whale season, which runs from December to May. Learn more at acs-la.org.
Point Vicente Lighthouse: The lighthouse tower and a small museum are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the second Saturday of each month except March, when the lighthouse is open on a different date. Children under 7 are not admitted. 31550 Palos Verdes Drive West in Rancho Palos Verdes. 310-541-0334, palosverdes.com/pvlight.