Passengers take photos and record video of dolphins swimming near a Harbor Breeze vessel during a whale watching tour out of Long Beach Monday, July 18, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The waves were particularly calm as Captain Dan Salas took to the sea.

It started as an ordinary morning in April 2004 for Salas, who had brought Harbor Breeze Cruises to Long Beach four years prior and regularly took tourists out to see the dolphins and gray whales that swam through the nearby waters.

But suddenly, a huge body emerged from the water in the distance. Waves of white foam crashed where it had surfaced.

The creature was far larger than anything Salas had seen before.

He’d witnessed a blue whale. Its magnitude enthralled him.

Salas told the Business Journal that he’s not exactly sure why the whales began emerging near Long Beach. But he knew that he had to see more.

“I don’t know what happened. There was some sort of climate change or current change or something,” Salas recalled. But “I was so inspired by the blue whale.”

That day Salas saw his first blue whale, he and his whale-watching customers were able to traverse the 20 miles out to where the creature had surfaced to get a closer look.

But, it turned out, it wasn’t realistic to offer trips to see blue whales regularly.

“To get out to the whales and make it back, it took three, three and a half hours,” Salas said. “We could only spend about 10 minutes if we found a whale, that’s how far off they were if we even got lucky enough to find one.”

The giants traveled much farther from land than the dolphins and gray whales that Salas had built his business on, and his boats did not have the speed to efficiently make the longer trip.

“If you have a 10-knot boat and want to go 20 miles, it will take you about two hours just to get there,” Salas said. “Sometimes the trip would be [around] four hours, and the people get a little grumpy on the boat.”

Still, he was inspired to focus more of his efforts on pursuing the blue whale.

So, he decided to get a boat that would do the job. He made the arrangements to purchase a $1 million, state-of-the-art vessel over the next year, and he set off on his first official blue whale pursuit on the Fourth of July in 2005.

It was a resounding success.

Harbor Breeze passengers use their phones to record video of a blue whale diving between Long Beach and Catalina Island during a whale watching tour Monday, July 18, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“We saw blue whales that day,” Salas said. “We were able to start getting media attention. … We put a spotlight on blue whales in Long Beach.”

Today, Salas runs two main boats out of Long Beach as part of his business, which provides both whale watching tours and informative cruises based just outside the Aquarium of the Pacific. These catamarans—larger, multi-hull boats that are designed to minimize turbulence on the water—are ideal for Salas’ business.

Both can hit top speeds of 30 knots (just over 34.5 miles per hour), which is fast enough to find the blue whales without sacrificing customers’ moods—an important task now that the flagship of the fleet, La Espada, can fit up to 250 passengers on each trip.

The informative tours Salas offers, meanwhile, are 45-minute rides around the Port of Long Beach, where passengers learn about the history of the waters around Long Beach, from the oil islands to past naval activities in the port. These can be run in some of the older, smaller boats that Salas owns in his fleet of nine.

For whale watching, though, there are two distinct seasons. The first is the more traditional gray whale season, which runs typically from November until April. Salas used to start his winter season right after Christmas, but things changed when the blue whale began appearing.

The more elusive blue whale has its own season, spanning generally from May until November—though a sighting is never guaranteed.

Harbor Breeze records most of its whale sightings on its website, and these reports show that the tours have seen over four times as many gray whales as blue whales since 2018.

While Salas has a great deal of knowledge and experience in tracking whales and their patterns, he said that there is no real way to know what you will see on a given day.

“You can predict the weather, you can predict the wind, but you can never predict the ocean,” he said. “It’ll fool you every time, so you just have to go with the flow.”

Something else you can’t predict is the onset of a global pandemic.

Like most other businesses, Harbor Breeze was forced to shut down in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Salas was suddenly presented with questions he had never faced.

“What do you do with your boats?” Salas said he asked himself. “We’re only as good as our employees, so how do we take care of their families?”

Finances were a particular concern, as Salas had recently purchased a dining yacht called the Sir Winston. Salas started marketing the ship in 2019 and began booking business in 2020—just as the pandemic came along.

“We had our first profitable spring on the new boat,” Salas said. “Almost every weekend, we had weddings booked. Then COVID hit, and I had to refund the money, and I am sitting here with this big giant boat and a big note with the bank.”

Still, the company survived, thanks in part to a $750,000 loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Salas’ bank also worked with him to create a fair payment system during the pandemic, which was key in helping keep things on track.

“We had to do a couple of creative things to get through COVID,” he said. “It was in the bank’s best interest and our best interest to work together.”

Even so, Salas stopped taking his own wages to get through the financial hurdles, which he said he did in part to minimize layoffs.

Keeping the boats that Harbor Breeze uses in working order while minimizing the chances for COVID transmission was also of utmost concern. Through careful adherence to public health protocols, he said there were no COVID outbreaks among employees.

As for a rebound in business after the worst of the public health crisis, Harbor Breeze was able to reopen to customers in June of 2020, but interest stayed low until last year.

“When we came out in 2021, we shattered every record we could ever hope for out of the pandemic,” Salas said. “We were hit with a tidal wave of customers.”

Whale watching tour-goers wait for others to disembark a Harbor Breeze vessel ahead of their own venture Monday, July 18, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

In particular, Salas remembers last year’s Fourth of July, after COVID vaccines were made widely available.

“They wanted to go out to the ocean and feel the wind in their face,” Salas said. “They wanted to be free.”

Now, Harbor Breeze ridership has returned closer to 2019 numbers, Salas said, and this return to a consistent flow has prompted Salas to take his business “to the next level,” he said.

Harbor Breeze’s business operations had long run out of an industrial park at the intersection of 16th Street and Daisy Avenue, but there were plenty of problems that made it less than ideal.

“Sometimes the air conditioning works, sometimes the upper portion of the building is so unbearably hot that we put four or five fans in there to cool it off,” Salas said.

So the company moved its business headquarters over to the Union Bank building at 400 Oceangate at the beginning of May this year. The building offers a more formal and professional environment—along with air conditioning.

“We went from a warehouse environment to a corporate environment,” Salas said.

To ensure this change to a more professional operation isn’t simply aesthetic, Salas recently brought on a business consulting firm, Boston-based Kelly Baker, to help Harbor Breeze continue to grow in a healthy way.

“They’re teaching me how to become a better boss,” Salas said. “How to provide my employees with work-life balance, how to provide a better work environment, and how to make my business not only better for the customer experience, but also a better place to work.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.