This week we seek out the California, Western, or Pacific gray whale, one of the mightiest migrants of them all. A close-up view of the gray whale, California’s official (and largest) mammal, is a life-changing experience. When those massive, dark, white-barnacled heads shoot up out of the ocean to breathe, saltwater spray with the force of a firehose blasts up from their blowholes. That spouting is how you’ll first spot them all along the California coast—whether from whale vistas on land, or from onboard boat or kayak tours.
Once endangered by whaling—as so many whale species still are—the California or eastern Pacific gray whales have recovered. Numbers now approach 25,000, close to the grays’ pre-whaling population. There was once a north Atlantic population of gray whales, extinct since the 1800s. The western Pacific or Korean population may also be extinct; rare individuals spotted there are probably California outliers. In fact, California’s gray whales may be repopulating historic and prehistoric territories. Some have been spotted near British Columbia, and in the East Siberian Sea. In 2010 one was spotted off Israel’s Mediterranean coast, and later (the same whale) near Barcelona, Spain. In 2013 a different individual was spotted off the coast of Namibia—the first time in recent history that gray whales have been observed in the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers speculate that grays are traveling via the Northwest Passage, now fully navigable due to climate change and the related loss of Arctic sea ice.
Categorized as baleen whales—which dine on plankton and other small aquatic animals sifted through hundreds of fringed, hornlike baleen plates—gray whales were once land mammals that went back to sea, trading their fore and hind legs for fins and tail flukes. Despite their fishlike appearance, these are true mammals: warm-blooded, air-breathing creatures who nourish their young with milk.
Adult gray whales weigh up to 45 tons, not counting a few hundred pounds of parasitic barnacles. Calves can weigh in at a hefty 1,500 pounds at birth, These whales typically live 30 to 60 years. They feed almost endlessly from April to October in the Arctic seas between Alaska and Siberia. Fat and sassy with an extra 6 to 12 inches of blubber onboard, early in October they head south on their 6,000-mile journey to the warmer waters of Baja California in Mexico.
Pregnant females leave first, traveling alone or in small groups. Larger groups make up the rear guard, with older males and nonpregnant females engaging in highly competitive courtship and mating rituals along the way. By mid-December to early January, most migrants are between Monterey and San Diego. The rear guard becomes the frontline on the way home: males, newly pregnant females, and young gray whales head north from Mexico starting in February. Cows and calves migrate last, most leaving between late March and April—typically traveling quite close to shore, for the protection of youngsters, making them easy to see from land. Migration timing can vary, though, so check in with your intended whale-watching destination for current details.
On a good day, a boat or kayak tour can get you pretty close—though any good guide will avoid interfering with these magnificent animals and their complex social connections. The Oceanic Society, a nonprofit research and conservation group, offers excellent winter whale-watching trips from both San Francisco and Half Moon Bay, and, at other times, day trips to the rugged offshore Farallon Islands, now part of an international UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Other best bets for a boat tour are Monterey Bay, Morro Bay, Newport Beach, Catalina Island, and San Diego, though there are charters and guides almost everywhere. The Monterey Bay area has the added attraction of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, another opportunity to immerse yourself in the magic of California’s offshore world. There are many great places to whale-watch coast even if a boat ride or kayak trip isn’t for you.
Generally speaking, the farther north you go, the fewer crowds you’ll contend with—meaning, Mendocino and Humboldt Counties are about perfect for landlubbing introverts. To watch from land, make sure it’s a clear, crisp day and head for higher ground. You want tall cliffs with an unimpeded view out over the ocean—the Rim Trail at Patrick’s Point State Park, say, or Trinidad Head, Table Bluff just south of Humboldt Bay, and Mendocino Headlands and other coast-hugging state parks. Sonoma County is also excellent: Head for Bodega Head at Bodega Bay. Wherever and however you go, always bring binoculars.