Each winter, an estimated 20,000 gray whales travel the 6,000 miles from the chilly waters of Alaska to the balmy bays of Mexico. Come spring, when the water warms, the whales travel back north again. (And you thought your commute was bad.)
The gray whales make the trek to Alaska to the feeding grounds of the Bering Sea to feast on millions of tiny crustaceans — a delicacy in the gray whale world — before traveling south to the warmer temperatures for mating season. Once their newly birthed calves are strong enough, they make their way back to begin the process all over again.
And the gray whales aren’t alone in their seasonal travels: Humpbacks, dolphins, blue whales, and orcas all make the coastal trip north and south each year. And thankfully for sightseers, catching a glimpse of their journey 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 a few tips and tricks to help (almost) guarantee spotting a whale or two below.
“We have cruises year-round, every day. So, I do not believe there is a best time of year to come out whale watching in Southern California. Though we do have different species of cetaceans that come into the area during certain times of the year,” said Wesley Turner, a marine science educator with Newport Landing Whale Watching in Newport Beach, California.
If you’re interested in gray whales, humpback whales, dolphins, and sea lions, Turner suggests coming down to Southern California any time between January and April. For blue whales and finback whales, try May through September. And for minke whales, come October through December.
“I always suggest going in the gray whale season,” Turner said, “because there are so many whales coming by our harbor each day the chances are excellent to see something.”
There may be no better spot to catch a whale sighting than Monterey Bay, California. Thanks to its uniquely cold one-mile-deep submarine canyon, Monterey is a hotbed of whale and marine mammal activity.
And thanks to the canyon’s offshore location, getting on a boat to spot a whale isn’t a necessity. Simply drive south along the stunning Big Sur coast, look out your 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 closer to the passing group 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 more than 25 years. There is a marine biologist aboard every trip to ensure all your questions will be answered.
Very rarely will a whale venture into the San Francisco Bay. Instead of waiting for the whales to swim under the Golden Gate Bridge, travel to the Gulf of the Farallones, a 3,295-square-mile marine sanctuary 25 miles off the coast.
“Due to a high degree of wind-driven upwelling, there is a ready supply of nutrients to surface waters and the California Current ecosystem is one of the most biologically productive regions in the world," the sanctuary’s site says.
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 most significant white shark populations on the planet, so you’ll likely spot something amazing when you visit. SF Bay Whale Watching will take visitors as close to the action as possible as part of its six-hour tour every Saturday and Sunday.
And for the more adventurous folks, the Outdoor Adventure Club offers guided whale watching kayak tours out of Davenport Landing, located about 90 minutes south of San Francisco.
In Northern California, your best time to spot gray whales and orcas is December to May. For humpbacks, visit May through November, and for blue whales, the largest animal on Earth, plan your stay sometime between July and October.
No matter where you go to visit one of nature’s most precious animals, Turner suggest being prepared for the elements. “We suggest passengers wear layers they can take off or put on to accommodate the temperature since it fluctuates during trips,” he said. “Guests should bring sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen. If anyone tends to get seasick, pill medications or motion patches are recommended.”
Beyond the right clothing, it’s also key to bring the right attitude. While most vessels' trips offer refunds if you don’t spot any whales, it’s still important to know that these are wild animals. But, as Turner said, 2017 may be the best chance ever to spot several different species of whales.
“We have seen over 900 sightings of gray whales since January and still counting. I feel this year’s gray whale migration has been the best yet,” he said. “With the increase in their population, we saw more mom/calf pairs than the past years. There have been numerous accounts of megapods of common dolphins seen right off our shore, the count to this date is at 40,000 individuals.”