Thursday, June 4, 2020
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All Quiet on the Pacific Front

In the cozy captain’s quarters of the whale watching vessel the Ocean Explorer, Captain Larry Hartmann wildly spins the spoked wooden steering wheel one handed, and the ship rotates in aimless circles just off the Newport coast. The steady rain pelts his wide, slanted windshield and the two motionless foot-long wiper blades do nothing to aid his visibility. The horizon is shrouded in a leaden miasma, with the water’s edge blending seamlessly with the sky. No telling how far out the Explorer is now. Could be one mile. Could be one hundred.

Hartmann’s voice suddenly slices through the sound of the rattling engine. One that could easily be mistaken for the flutter of muffled helicopter blades. He’s been drifting through the waters for about an hour and has yet to spot a single whale for his 9:30 a.m. group, which is why he sounds disappointed, even apologetic. He grabs a CB-style push to talk mic that hangs above his head and presses the button.

“Everything is gray. And we’re looking for a gray whale.”

He puts the mic back on its hook and stares apprehensively at the sea.

Captain Hartmann loves wheeling his vessel out onto the rolling waters and showing people marine animals they’ve never seen before. That look of fascination, the happiness that creeps across his guest’s faces, is a strong motivator for Hartmann.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.

“Even if the sea is rough, or if it’s cold or raining, it’s nice to be out on the ocean.”

But even without whale or dolphin sightings, Hartmann can still find ways to provide a memorable experience. On one of his excursions he met a woman who had stage 4 cancer. He ushered her into his cabin and let her steer the Ocean Explorer.

“That’s what it’s all about. Who knows how long she has? And look how happy it made her.”

For Hartmann, happiness is also prowling the Pacific coast with his hand on the accelerator, his eyes scanning for blue whales, gray whales, orcas, bottle nosed dolphins and even sharks. If he catches anything out of the ordinary, like a sperm whale, he’s sure to film the incident. He has a YouTube page, CaptLarryAdventures (though he hasn’t updated it in months), which archives rare and interesting sightings, and he’s even shot a few films. “7 Miles from Newport Beach” and “7 Miles from Dana Point” showcase the diversity of marine life that calls the Pacific coast home. Hartmann’s senses are extremely attuned to the sights and sounds of the ocean and it is a rare day when he takes the Explorer out and fails to spot even a single whale.

Hartmann is a shade under six-feet tall, built solid but bulging slightly from the middle. When he glares out of his windshield, his eyes have the dissecting look of a quarterback as he surveys the field, and as he moves swiftly around the boat it’s not hard to picture his former life as one spent on the offensive line. The only evidence of his 51 years is the encroachment of white whiskers on his goatee and forks of paper thin wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. His navy blue windbreaker, which bears the stitching Ocean Explorer over his heart and Larry curled up like a smile just below, zips when his hands brush into the pockets. His face is sunblown, yet it retains a healthy reddish-brown glow. Shielding it is a grass green John Deere hat, pulled tight on his head, the bill bent like a crashing wave. He won’t need his rainbow-lensed sport glasses today, so they surf directly under the leaping deer.

The dozen or so passengers on board are bundled up, thick sweaters under windbreakers and knit beanies and gloves. Some stand on the top deck, grasping the frigid metal overhead bars and rocking like drunken sailors. Others roam the bow and stern or gaze morosely into the distance. Hartmann, meanwhile, has spotted a few dolphins and booms amiably over the boat’s strategically placed intercoms. It’s a small miracle considering his vision is being obscured by the murky waters and the water-flecked windshield.

He pushes down the handle accelerator and the Ocean Explorer zooms closer to where he glimpsed the dolphins. Even though he spotted them, which isn’t difficult for a man who has led about 3,000 whale watching trips, the water buildup on the front windshield frustrates Hartmann.

“If I had a crewmate up here cleaning my windows I might be able to see them.”

His request isn’t forceful but suggestive, as if he could make it work either way. Hartmann mentions it one more time, but, getting no response from his absent crewmates, he lets it go. The windows remain spotted with chunks of bulbous blobs. He leans to the left side, almost tipping over, so he can wrap his eyes around the windshield and through the vertical window next to it.

After trying to track down the common dolphins, he reaches up and grabs the mic.

“I don’t even know how I saw these, but I did. These are called common dolphins because they are in every ocean in the world.”

He says that they use the boat to push them along, what he calls “bow-riding,” and a focused eye on the bow can spot them weaving in and out of the water, speeding along as if in the final lap of a championship race.

“They weigh about 150-200 pounds. We see them in huge groups sometimes, up into the thousands.”

But the dolphins are not in the mood for playtime. They seem to be more like irritated drivers on the freeway, racing alongside, passing in front in churning white blurs, whipping invisible tails at lightning speeds.

“Let’s see if we can get them to bow-ride. Sometimes if we go faster they like it,” says Hartmann.

The dolphins, however, don’t like it. They’re gone now. As for the whales, they’re out there, somewhere, but they’re making Hartmann work for it. They just aren’t going to pop up and blow a puff of mist on cue. Then, one comes up for a gulp of air (when they blow out, they suck in oxygen), and the captain’s sharp eye catches him, though no one else seems to see it. But just as quick as he surfaced, the whale descends and Hartmann sighs deeply, grabs his mic, and voices his regret.

“I saw him blow. 100%.”

His dejected voice speaks volumes about his character. He really wants those damn whales to show themselves and he’ll do everything short of harpooning them if it means giving the people what they want. Still, he is encouraging.

“I know some people come out and only have one shot at seeing some whales. They may not come back. So it is disappointing (yet not discouraging) if the whales don’t show themselves, but if we see some dolphins then I don’t feel as bad. Now, if the weather isn’t favorable, then there’s not much you can do.”

Spotting the whales isn’t a difficult task, you just have to know what to look for.

“You look for an anomaly. Something that’s different on the surface of the water. Whales can be sighted by what look like puffs of smoke emerging from the water. That puff is actually condensation, blown out water vapor that is the result of the mixture of warm and cool air. They also leave what are called footprints, made on the surface when they push forward with their tails.”

The result of the footprint is a portion of calm water that can be contrasted with the water around it, pointing to the whale’s general direction. And if you can find one, then, Hartmann believes, the possibility for finding more increases.

“Usually where there is one, there are more.”