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'They [the whale watchers] sign a waiver. Then we get them in their wetsuits and booties, give them a paddle and a lifejacket, and head outside for a brief paddle instruction and safety talk," says owner of Hike Bike Kayak, Amy Kangleon. "Then they walk four blocks to the beach; the kayaks are brought to the beach in a truck. The guides help the [whale watchers] get out into the surf and they head straight out from the beach into the ocean." The first whale-watching tour Hike Bike Kayak will give this season will be on Saturday, December 17, after which tours will be held daily through March. It is during these months that gray whales pass through the waters off the coast of La Jolla as they migrate from Alaska to Baja California, the primary location where calves are born and adults mate. "The whales tend to come in closer when they're going south," says Kangleon. "We have seen them as close as the kelp beds, which is a 30-minute paddle -- not even a mile away from shore. The La Jolla canyon starts about 30 yards out then drops off and starts to go very deep, and therefore large animals can come very close."

Kayakers are instructed to keep their distance from the wildlife. "Once we had a participant charging after a baby whale, and I just don't recommend that...we don't pet them.

"We do see quite a bit of wildlife, even [when] we don't see whales," Kangleon explains. In past seasons two-thirds of kayaking tourists spotted whales. "We have seen pods of dolphins, sunfish, schools of fish, sea lions, cormorants, and brown pelicans, which are amazing -- we see [the pelicans] all the time." One tour group stumbled onto a pod of 50 dolphins, some of which jumped over the kayaks. "Dolphins are so beautiful and playful. We have a lot of people who do want to touch them [especially when they come closer], but I feel it's safer to try to maintain a healthy distance."

Touring groups, which are limited to a maximum of ten, may paddle up to three miles. "It depends on the group. If people are not as fit, we're not going to go as far, but it is exercise," explains Kangleon. "We need people to not have any serious medical conditions." Wetsuits are provided in sizes up to XXL.

"We make sure that people are in the right-sized boat because these kayaks have weight limits. That's why, unfortunately, we have to ask people how much they weigh." A single kayak (built for one person) can accommodate up to 220 pounds, and most tandem kayaks (built for two people) can handle up to 400 pounds. "If someone's a little bit bigger, up to 275 or 300 pounds, we can put them in the middle of a tandem kayak."

Single kayaks, which retail for around $500, are 11 feet long and 3 feet wide. Tandems, which run about $600, are usually 13 feet long and 45 inches wide, according to Kangleon, whose store has recently begun to sell kayaks.

Those who go on this tour should expect to get wet. "Right now the water is about 59 degrees. In December it is usually in the high 50s or low 60s. If you're concerned about getting cold, bring a paddling jacket to put over your wetsuit or wear a rash guard underneath your wetsuit," suggests Kangleon. The jackets range from $59 to $89, and the rash guard is around $40.

"I don't recommend this tour for people who never exercise," says Kangleon. "Beginners can do the La Jolla sea caves tour, but for [whale watching] you have weather, you have cold. If you walk several times a week you should be fine. And if you're concerned [that you might not be fit enough], I would suggest riding tandem with a friend who is stronger. It's usually women who underestimate themselves, but I think that's life in general."

Kayaks can tip over in the water, especially if the person paddling makes jerky movements or fails to maintain balance when hit with hard wind or a wave. "Usually that happens in the surf where you leave or come in. Those are the places you want to be more careful." To avoid tipping, guides urge kayakers to watch the waves, "making sure you're not going out when a big wave is going to come and knock you over," and to direct kayaks straight into the waves. "The boats can handle it; they can go right over the waves." The issue becomes whether or not one can "power through it." Sometimes, though, there is no way to avoid tipping, and Kangleon insists this is no cause for alarm. "Most of the time the water is so shallow you can stand up." -- Barbarella

Whale-Watching Kayak Tour Begins Saturday, December 17, 9 a.m. to noon Hike Bike Kayak Shop 2246 Avenida de la Playa La Jolla Shores Cost: $65 (single kayak); $55 per person (tandem kayak) Info: 866-425-2925 or www.hikebikekayak.com

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