Norm Cole watched with ill-disguised frustration as his armada of inflatable boats set off for the day's hunt without him.

Methodically, he fiddled with the ignition switch, the choke, then the spark plugs of the 40-horsepower engine on his Zodiac skiff. Nothing. His three sleepy-eyed passengers began to fidget. He tried switching fuel tanks. The engine responded with a roar.Within moments, Cole was churning full throttle down the channel of this sprawling, silt-laden bay on Mexico's Baja California Pacific Coast, steering straight for a ring of white geysers on the horizon. As he approached, he cut the engine. Silence, except for the screech of sea gulls and the gentle current lapping against the rubber boat.

Suddenly, a whoooosh echoed through the air. Cole and his crew whipped around to see a misty plume, then a pair of blowholes and the barnacled back of a massive gray whale break the surface less than 10 feet away. New blows resonated as a second whale, then a mother and baby circled.

"This must be the Whale Freeway!" shouted Cole, a modern-day Captain Ahab unsure which direction to aim his camera.

When a dappled white and gray whale thrust its 40-ton body into the air in a series of five "breaches" barely 100 yards off the bow, the 46-year-old Laguna Beach, Calif., biologist grinned.

"I could watch this all day," he said between camera clicks. "This is why I keep coming back."

Call it the siren song of the whale.

Their mystique lures thousands of people who spend thousands of dollars each year on pilgrimages to whaling grounds around the world.

Mecca for enthusiasts is Baja California, where the most accessible whale species, California grays, migrate 6,000 miles from their Arctic feeding waters to mate and give birth each winter in Mexican bays and lagoons.

They come to see, to touch, to study. Most arrive on tour ships. Others join researchers such as Cole, an Orange Coast College professor who brings 20 or so assistants each winter to help collect photographic data on gray whales.

The gray whale's odyssey begins in October off Alaska and Siberia. Daylight grows short, the food scarce. Colder winds herald the onset of winter storms and shifting ice floes. Pregnant cows depart first to ensure they make the 8- to 10-week trip to warm, protected Baja lagoons before bearing their calves.

Once in Mexican waters, whales head for three main areas to mate and bear their young: Scammon's Lagoon, about midway down the Baja coast; San Ignacio Lagoon, and sprawling Magdalena Bay.

It is just before 6 p.m. Feb. 21, and a caravan of four-wheel drive trucks pulls out of a Capistrano Beach driveway. Citizens-band radios securely fastened, campers and trucks packed to the gunwales, the second wave of 10 research assistants are Baja bound.

Once out on the water, the head of a gray whale emerges underneath a spout, then arcs slowly back into the water, the knuckles of its spine disappearing one by one. Even from a distance, those who see a 40-foot gray whale for the first time are awe-struck.

The next morning, everyone heads for Boca de Soledad, the northern bay entrance, where whales swim past churning surf.

There, several pairs of cows and calves move in tandem. Two of the expedition's six boats speed toward one pair. But mother and child take a diagonal detour under Cole's boat and away from their startled pursuers.

Word comes across the walkie-talkies of possible breeding behavior and voyeur dolphins. The boats zoom toward roiling waters.

Sure enough, at least three whales are tumbling, their pectoral fins poking the surface at odd angles. But the larger female appears disinterested and dives away. Because whales have no legs and only the smallest of pectoral fins, Cole said it usually takes a second male to help maneuver the bodies for mating. Similarly, a younger female often acts as midwife for a cow giving birth.

Here and there, a whale's elongated head pokes straight up for a peek. "Spy hop at 11 o'clock!" shouts Frazer to Cole and a second photographer in his boat.

In the distance, a large whale breaches, throwing its heavy body in the air and twisting so that its barnacled left side and back smack the water.

"No one really knows why gray whales breach," explains Cole as he tries to maneuver closer. "It could be a personality thing - something the more rambunctious whales do. Since they can see with `spy hops,' they don't need to spend all that energy just to see. Perhaps the force of the impact is intended to knock those irritating barnacles off their skin."

As the days wear on, no whale seems eager for a close encounter with humans. Mad dashes in all directions in three-foot choppy seas exhausts the boaters.

Dejected veterans compare it with San Ignacio, where whales congregate in large numbers and don't bolt at the sight or sound of boats.

Beside a roaring campfire that night, a disappointed Cole draws his own comparison of Magdalena Bay and San Ignacio: "It's like playing baseball too long and getting traded to a bad team. I'm going to stop doing this unless they (Mexican officials) make this easier."

Cole resolves to explore waters farther south at dawn, well before other boat traffic in the bay.

Several miles down the channel, he discovers calmer waters, almost a bay-within-a-bay, where nearly a dozen whales are slowly cruising, rolling and spouting.

After a day of exploring, Cole and his crew head back to camp.

The following morning, everyone heads for the new whaling grounds. Despite his engine troubles, Cole's boat beats the others to the Whale Freeway, where innumerable spouting whales seem to cruise in circles.

They are so close and so untroubled by the boat's presence, Cole whoops with joy and dances the "Friendly Shuffle" barefoot on the sandy metal floor of the Zodiac.

Nearby, a calf rides its mother's broad back, tumbling off like a child on a slide. The calf swims closer, intrigued by Cole's gurgling engine.

Behind him, the mottled white-and-gray whale breaches like a Baryshnikov of the sea performing for an admiring crowd. The first five leaps are followed by a series of eight. Rolls of film are exhausted in seconds.

Cole and his crew are breathless by the time the others catch up. They, too, are treated to spy hops, breaches and playful cows and calves. One whale pokes his head out of the water in the same spot with such regularity, Cole jokes: "This must be Disneyland and they're on little (underwater) tracks!"

Suddenly, a shout is heard over the battery-operated "easy talkers" linking the boats. It's Mike Hawe, a British-born auto mechanic from Long Beach, Calif., who goes whale-watching every weekend. It was his first trip with Cole, and so far, he had been disappointed.

Now a whale had stopped within a foot of their boat.

"I could have reached out and touched it, but I restrained myself," said Hawe, sitting cross-legged in the boat, a six-day stubble poking around the chin strap of his broad-brimmed straw hat.

A blissful, cockeyed grin stretched from ear to ear, as though he had been transported to heaven.

"His eye was looking at me and he was smiling," Hawe said, shaking his own smiling face in amazement. "It was just an incredible feeling!"