Thousands of gray whales continue with their annual 10,000-mile migration along the Pacific Coast — within sight of the San Diego skyline. Photo by Chris Stone

Drivers traveling up and down Interstate 5 might not be aware of other traffic nearby. But that flow is soon peaking.

More than 20,000 gray whales are making their annual migration in a traffic corridor off San Diego’s coast, the longest migration of any mammal. Their lanes are most congested from about mid-March to late April.

Some are still traveling south, long after other whales cruised by in December. Northbound whales, returning to feeding grounds off Alaska, have left their breeding and nursing grounds in Baja California lagoons.

So whale watching cruises are churning up the waters, taking thousands of sightseers, trying to catch the glimpse of a waterspout or fluke (tail).

(Cruises can include glimpses of Navy ships and submarines, as well as seabirds and dolphins, as we found last weekend.)

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In the past week, Hornblower Cruises reported seeing from two to 10 whales and numerous dolphins on its morning and afternoon outings.

Southbound whales often travel three to five miles from shore. Northbound whales can swim out from nine to 12 miles offshore.

Some lucky sea-goers have also reported seeing whales breaching and showing mating behavior. Others have viewed less common humpback whales in addition to sea lions and flying fish.

No guarantee exists that people will see a whale on the 3- to 3 1/2-hour cruises, but some companies offer a coupon for a return ride if no whales are spotted spouting.

Most companies offer morning and afternoon cruises.

On a recent weekend cruise about a Flagship boat, a southbound gray whale and scores of a variety of dolphins delighted riders. The whale was spotted about six miles off the coast.

Pods of bottlenose, Pacific white-sided and common dolphins cruised in front of the boat and along its side.

Mother and calf pairs are heading north after spending two to three months in the Baja lagoons that have warmer water, saltier seas that aid calves with buoyancy and area isolated from their chief predators — orcas, killer whales.

Boat riders are advised to bring a hat, layers of clothing, sunscreen, cameras and binoculars, and motion sickness medicine. The don’ts include smoking, dogs (except for service dogs).

Besides Flagship, whale watching cruises include Hornblower Cruises, San Diego Whale Watch, Everyday California kayak tour, Legacy Whale Watch and Next Level Sailing. Also: Adventure Rib Rides, H&M Landing and San Diego Natural History Museum.

Most cruises offer a galley and have a narrator.

Whale watching cruise adult prices range from $45 to $85. Discounts are offered to military personnel, seniors and children.

Here are some interesting facts about gray whales:

Gray whales travel three to six miles per hour while traveling about 100 a day.

  • Adult gray whales measure about 45 feet long, weighing 30-40 tons. Gray whales spend summer months in Northern Pacific coast waters, feeding and putting on as much as 12 inches of blubber. As they make their 5,000-mile trip to Baja California, they may lose may lose 10-13 tons of its energy source, blubber.
  • Gray whales are bottom feeders, scooping up small crustaceans such as amphipods, and tube worms and filter out water using their baleen plates.
  • Gray whales don’t have dorsal finds, but about two-thirds of he way back on the body, they have a dorsal ridge that extends to their flukes measuring about 10 feet across.
  • An adult gray whale’s eye is about the size of a baseball.
  • The gestation period for a gray whale is 12-13 months.
  • A female whale has one calf about every two years.
  • Calves weigh 1,100-1,500 pounds at birth.
  • Calves nurse for seven o eight months, consuming about 50 gallons of its mother’s milk that is about 53 percent fat.
  • Gray whales live about 40 to 60 years, but some live as long as 70 years.
  • As barnacles reach adulthood, they latch on to solid surfaces, including a gray whale’s head, back or flippers. The barnacles remain on the whales for the rest of their lives and feed off of food that washes over them.
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