Each winter, approximately 20,000 gray whales travel the 6,000 miles from the cold waters of Alaska to the balmy bays of Mexico. In the spring, when the water warms up, the whales return north. (And you thought your ride was bad.)
Gray whales travel from Alaska to feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to feast on millions of tiny crustaceans – a delicacy in the world of gray whales – before heading south towards warmer temperatures to the season of love. Once their newborn calves are strong enough, they return to start the process over.
And gray whales aren’t alone on their seasonal journeys: humpback whales, dolphins, blue whales and orcas all make the coastal journey north and south each year. And luckily for tourists, previewing their trip off the California coast is easier than ever.
Each section of California has its own unique sightings and optimal times to go. We’ve listed some tips and tricks below to help you (almost) guarantee a whale sighting or two.
“We have cruises year-round, every day. So I don’t believe there’s a best time of year for whale watching in Southern California. Although we have different species of cetaceans that come to the area at certain times of the year,” said Wesley Turner, marine science educator at Newport Landing Whale Watching in Newport Beach, Calif.
If you’re interested in seeing gray whales, humpback whales, dolphins and sea lions, Turner suggests heading down to Southern California anytime between January and April. For blue and fin whales, try May to September. And for minke whales, come from October to December.
“I always suggest going during gray whale season,” Turner said, “because there are so many whales that pass through our harbor every day that the odds are excellent of seeing something.”
There may be no better place to watch a whale than Monterey Bay, California. Thanks to its unique one-mile-deep underwater canyon, Monterey is a hotbed of whale and marine mammal activity.
And thanks to the location off the canyon, getting on a boat to spot a whale isn’t a necessity. Simply drive south along the beautiful Big Sur coastline, look out the window and stop along the way. The high vantage point makes it ideal for spotting a pod swimming through.
Or, if you’re looking to get up close to the passing pod of cetaceans, book one of the daily four-hour excursions offered by Monterey Bay Whale Watch, a company owned and operated by Nancy Black, a marine biologist who has worked with whales. . for over 25 years. There is a marine biologist on board every trip to ensure that all your questions are answered.
It is very rare for a whale to venture into San Francisco Bay. Instead of waiting for whales to swim under the Golden Gate Bridge, head to Farallones Gulf, a 3,295-square-mile marine sanctuary 25 miles offshore.
“Due to a high degree of wind-driven upwelling, surface waters are supplied with nutrients and the California Current ecosystem is one of the most biologically productive regions in the world,” says the shrine site.
The area provides breeding and feeding grounds for more than 25 endangered or threatened species, including blue, gray and humpback whales, a variety of seals, Pacific white-sided dolphins and sea lions It’s also home to one of the largest white shark populations on the planet, so you’re likely to notice something amazing when you visit. SF Bay Whale Watching will take visitors as close to the action as possible on its six-hour tour every Saturday and Sunday.
And for the more adventurous, the Outdoor Adventure Club offers guided whale-watching kayak tours from Davenport Landing, located about 90 minutes south of San Francisco.
In northern California, the best time to see gray whales and orcas is from December to May. For humpback whales, visit from May to November, and for blue whales, the largest animal on the planet, plan your visit between July and October.
No matter where you go to visit one of nature’s most precious animals, Turner suggests preparing for the elements. “We suggest passengers wear layers that they can take off or put on to accommodate the temperature as it fluctuates during travel,” he said. “Clients should bring sunglasses, hats and sunscreen. If anyone is prone to seasickness, medication or anti-movement patches are recommended.”
Beyond the right clothes, having the right attitude is also essential. While most ship trips offer refunds if you don’t spot whales, it’s still important to know that they are wildlife. But, as Turner said, 2017 might be the best chance to spot several different species of whales.
“We’ve seen over 900 gray whale sightings since January and we’re still counting. I think this year’s gray whale migration was the best yet,” he said. “As their population increases, we have seen more mother/calf pairs than in previous years. There have been many reports of common dolphin megapodes being seen just off our coast, the number to date is 40,000 people.”