Whale watching in California
Whilst California is one of the most diverse destinations on the planet, and one of my personal favourites too, not everyone thinks of whale watching when planning their trip to this beautiful part of the United States.
Around 20,000 gray whales make an epic 12,000-mile annual round trip between Alaska and Mexico, November through April. They travel from feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to mating and breeding lagoons along the coast of Baja California in Mexico. Aside from the great wildebeest migration in Africa, this is one of the most amazing wildlife migrations on the planet.
Best thing is, it is fairly easy for us humans to witness, even from the coast, (In some locations, you can see the whales spouting, breaching, and fluking from the ocean, not only with a good set of binoculars.) but especially if you take one of the many guided whale-watching cruises that are on offer, with knowledgeable crew on board.
While it is mainly gray whales which are spotted along the California coast, other cetaceans—including Orcas, humpbacks, porpoises, dolphins, and gigantic blue whales can be seen in these waters at different times of year. All of this adding to your chances of seeing something amazing out there at sea any time you visit.
North of San Francisco, Mendocino is located 9.5 miles south of Fort Bragg, at an elevation of 154 feet.
California gray whales make their annual migration from feeding grounds in Alaska south to mate and have babies in the warm coastal lagoons of Baja, Mexico. Along the way, the whales do a swim-by off the Mendocino Coast, offering an unforgettable chance to see these creatures spouting, breaching, and diving as they make their epic journey south.
High vantage points along the coast are great for seeing whales, particularly on calm mornings. Favourite spots near town include coastal trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park, and at Point Arena Lighthouse. For a closer look, book a spot on a whale-watching charter, or, if you’re feeling adventurous and waters are calm, rent kayaks.
Whales are such big news here that they even get their own fleet of festivals, with the towns of Mendocino, Little River, and Fort Bragg all hosting special events, including walks, talks, and special boat charters, in March.
For most San Fran does not need much introduction. One of the most fabulous cities not only in California, but in the whole of the United States.
To see whales, head to the tip of Point Reyes National Seashore from December through February. According to whale experts, an astounding 94 percent of migrating Pacific gray whales pass within 1 mile of this protected peninsula some 27 miles north of San Francisco. January is the most whale-happy month, when more than 1,000 whales can pass this point each day. Access is controlled during peak season (December through March), with bus shuttles running between parking lots and prime viewing areas. Other hot spots include the headlands in Montara and Half Moon Bay (both less than a 45 minute drive south of San Francisco). Or just head out to any high spot along the coast that juts into the Pacific. Calm days without whitecaps are best—that’s when it’s easiest to spot the whales’ tell-tale spouts.
Gray whale cruises (typically offered December through May) head out from San Francisco’s Pier 39, as well as Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. To see even more species, consider taking an unforgettable guided cruise to the remote, wildlife-rich Farallon Islands, a tiny chain of jagged rock outcrops 27 miles off San Francisco. Waters here teem with life; 26 endangered or threatened species—including whales, birds, and marine life—live or visit the islands and surrounding waters. Blue and humpback whales regularly feed in the region summer through fall; whale watching cruises typically leave San Francisco at 8 a.m. and return by mid-afternoon.
South of Santa Cruz and North of Monterey, Moss Landing is home to Elkhorn Slough State Marine Park and Moss Landing State Wildlife area.
In summer, when conditions are calm, you can take guided kayak tours into the open ocean off tiny Moss Landing, putting you right in the midst of whale-watching action. The waters here, teem with wildlife.
Even if you can’t paddle there is no need to miss the show. Guided boat cruises head out from the marina, where you can often see Californian Sea Otters in the docks. Whale-watching expeditions head out year-round.
Here you will find the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, with hundreds of thousands of marine animals and plants on display in underwater and interactive exhibits.
Because of the cold, food-rich 1-mile-deep Monterey submarine canyon just offshore, whales and marine mammals thrive here, making it an outstanding place to see whales year-round. You might also sporadically spot smaller cetaceans such as fin and minke whales, as well as orcas, dolphins, and porpoises throughout the year.
Numerous companies offer whale-watching tours departing from Fisherman’s Wharf. For prime whale-watching from land, drive south along the spectacular Big Sur Coast, where high points along Highway One provide great whale-viewing spots. On weekends in January and February, join ranger-led whale-watch programs at some of the region’s parks, including Garrapata, Andrew Molera, and Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Parks.
The Channel Islands of California are a chain of eight islands located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California along the Santa Barbara Channel in the United States of America.
Whale-watching tours run between the Ventura coast and the Channel Islands. Of the 78 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the world, 29 have been spotted near the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Even if a gray, blue, or humpback whale doesn’t make an appearance, the tour boat captains can usually find a pod of dolphins, common, bottlenose, or Risso’s, as well as lots of sea lions. Every now and then, a school of flying fish soars right over the boat.
The summer months are the best times to see humpback whales and blue whales, which are attracted by abundant krill. Humpbacks are more common, but seeing a blue whale—the largest animal ever recorded on earth—is an experience you never forget. Measuring up to 100 feet long (the length of three school buses), the blue whale can spray water from its blowhole nearly 30 feet in the air.
Famous for many things, whale watching may not be high on your list of things to do and see in LA. However after marveling at the model of a giant blue whale in the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, go see the real thing on whale watching trips from the adjacent harbour, or head out from San Pedro to the west. Just offshore, you have a good chance to spot blue whales June through October and migrating gray whales December to mid-May. With luck, you’ll spy humpbacks and Orcas too.
Near the aquarium, Harbor Breeze Yacht Charters and Cruises heads out in modern catamarans with stadium seating for daily whale watching cruises throughout the year. Listen to educators from the aquarium as they describe the marine life you’ll see along the coast, including common and bottlenose dolphins. In San Pedro, Spirit Cruises casts off for 2-hour tours in search of gray whales from January through March. Don’t see any whales? You’ll get a pass for another trip.
For spying whales from land, head about 9 miles west of San Pedro to Point Vicente Interpretive Centre. Perched on a rocky promontory along the scenic Palos Verdes Peninsula, this site is one of Southern California’s premier locations for viewing the gray whale migration from land. In the centre, check out exhibits on gray whale natural history, including a life-size model of a calf. Observers from the American Cetacean Society use the centre’s deck for their annual whale census.
San Diego is a city on the Pacific coast of California known for its beaches, parks and warm climate. Immense Balboa Park is the site of the world-famous San Diego Zoo, as well as numerous art galleries, artist studios, museums and gardens. A deep harbour is home to a large active naval fleet, with the USS Midway, an aircraft-carrier-turned-museum, open to the public.
Whether by land or by sea, San Diego is one of California’s best spots for whale watching. With just a pair of binoculars, you can spot whales from the high bluffs at Torrey Pines State Reserve and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, both in La Jolla about 20 minutes north of downtown San Diego. And near the historic lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument, Whale Watch Lookout Point sits 128 metres above the waves with a wide field of vision - perfect for spotting whales.
For closer looks, sign up for a whale watching cruise. A 3-hour trip with San Diego Whale Watch comes with a guarantee - if you don’t see either a whale or a dolphin, you can go out for free on another day. H&M Landing offers local gray whale tours December through March; in summer, join an H&M landing journey to the Coronado Islands, a protected marine sanctuary just southwest of San Diego in Mexican waters, to see spot blue whales, elephant seals, and orcas too.
Your Way Travel can help you plan and book your trip to California and recommend itineraries and accommodation.
Most of the facts and information contained in this blog were taken from visitCalifornia.com which is a great source of information to help plan any California trip.