The happy humpbacks were soaring, slapping, sauntering – even singing.

For the past few weeks, humpback whales have been making appearances off the Southern California coastline, from Santa Monica Bay to San Diego, thrilling whale-watching charters that have caught spectacular footage.

While recent sightings have been sporadic, this past weekend several of the friendly whale species were not just spotted, but came up close to “mug” boats and displayed playful behavior.

Ryan Lawler, a captain who was out on an all-day excursion with Pacific Offshore Expeditions, headed north from Newport Beach to the Santa Monica Bay, where whale watchers encountered a duo of especially curious humpbacks about 15 miles off the Redondo Beach coastline. 

“They are known to be the most gregarious whale, but you don’t often catch them in that mood,” he said. “When they are off of California, they are here to get food.”

But this particular pair seemed to be displaying socializing behaviors, Lawler said.

“That’s what we saw (Sunday), these two were separated from their food. We introduced the boat and their curiosity took off for over an hour, investigating the boat,” he said.

“We had a lot of people on the boat screaming with excitement. It was really a social interaction with the whales and our boat.”

The whales were popping up an arm’s distance from the small inflatable boat, swimming under the vessel, floating upside-down beside it and coming up beside passengers who were snapping selfies with the whales. One whale came so close with its barnacle-covered mouth a passenger joked, “he wants a kiss.”

“The great thing was, everyone who signs up for these trips, they are self-described ‘whale geeks,’ they aren’t like passing tourists,” Lawler said. “They are all so enthusiastic about whales, so enthusiastic they are willing to be nine hours on a boat in the middle of the ocean. It was pandemonium. People were screaming, people were crying happy tears.”

It was the first time, Lawler said, that he has heard the whales “singing” in local waters, audible on underwater footage. This usually happens in their breeding grounds off Mexico and Central America when they are mating.

The food could be what is drawing the whales to Southern California, with plenty of anchovies in the water, he said.

“All summer and into the fall, we’ve been noticing lots and lots of anchovies. It’s only recently the whales have come down and noticed them,” Lawler said.

Humpbacks have been spotted by other charters, including Harbor Breeze Cruises, which reported a few sightings about two weeks ago off of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Dana Wharf Whale Watching has reported a handful of sightings, some close to shore with one just outside of the harbor on Sunday, after sightings farther off the coast the previous day.

The buzz was enough to get manager Donna Kalez out on a boat when she heard there were three hanging out just off of Camp Pendleton and another two a few miles away.

“We had humpbacks all around,” she said. “It’s super exciting. We’ve been waiting. Right when the gray whale season started, now here comes the humpbacks.”

They don’t seem to be traveling north or south, just hanging around to forage for food.

“They were just doing circles,” Kalez said. “As we turned to leave, they started breaching. We saw a whale breach four times.”

These whales too were “sounding,” as she called it, making trumpet-like noises loud enough to hear from the boat.

Sightings of humpbacks off the Southern California coast can be sporadic. Some years, hundreds show up, other years, only a handful.

Humpback whales have their own migration pattern. They spend summers off the shore in areas of Central and Northern California such as Santa Barbara and Monterey.  In the winter, they head south to nurse and breed in Mexico and Central America.

“Usually when they are in the same area for two days, you are pretty much guaranteed they are sticking around,” Kalez said.

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