Humpback Whale Fluke
Photo: J. Waite/NOAA
Looking for a great place to go whale watching? California offers numerous opportunities for you to see whales, both from shore and at sea. And you'll find whales of one sort or another year round. Whale watching cruises are offered all along the California coast. Add in California's gorgeous coastal scenery and the abundance of other types of wildlife, and you've got a winning combination.
There are several species of whales commonly seen along the California
coast. Check out these whale facts and whale pictures so you'll know
what to look for before you go whale watching.
Gray Whale Photo © Ryan Harvey / flickr.com
By far the most common whale you'll see is the gray whale, which migrates every fall from its summer feeding grounds off the coast of Alaska to its breeding grounds in the lagoons of Baja California.
Gray whales are not migrating as far north or as far south as they once did. They don't need to go so far to find food. In fact, they may even become "resident" to areas where the waters are particularly nutrient rich. And the good news is that the population of gray whales has been increasing steadily and is now at about 23,000.
Gray whale watching season lasts from winter through early spring. The southern migration starts in November and lasts until about February. The northern migration starts in February and lasts through April. Spring is the best time to see the whales, since mothers (cows) with calves tend to hug the coast - keeping their calves coast-side, presumably to protect them from killer whales (Orcas).
The gray whale is a medium sized whale, measuring 45 feet long and weighing 50 tons at maturity. You'll be able to spot it easily from shore with its V shaped blow, up to 15 feet high. In fact, since gray whales often travel in large groups, you may see a line of blow plumes - like some gigantic water fountain.
However, gray whales are not the only species you can see, not by any means.
Blue Whale Fluke Photo: Josh Kaye-Carr, Channel Islands Naturalist Corps
Blue whales are huge! They're the largest animal on earth at 70 to 90 feet long and weighing over 100 tons. They're fast, strong swimmers and big eaters, devouring around 4 tons of krill a day. Blue whales are an endangered species. There are only about 10,000 worldwide with 2,200 of those off the California coast.
The best places to spot blue whales are around the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, around Big Sur and the Monterey Bay area, and around the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara. Blue whale watching season lasts from late spring to fall.
Humpback Whale Photo: Barbara LaCorte/Linda Flegal, Channel Islands Naturalist Corps
Humpback whales reach a length of 40 to 50 feet. The population of humpback whales along the California coast is about 800. They're very animated whales and can often be seen leaping out of the water, slapping the water with their fins and flukes, and even swimming on their backs with both fins in the air. In short, they're fun to watch.
Humpback whales spend most of the year close to shore or around islands, and since they're also somewhat slow swimmers who rest frequently, your chances of seeing them on a whale watching cruise are pretty good. Humpback whale watching season lasts from summer to fall.
Pacific White-Sided Dolphins Photo: Michael Richlen/NOAA
You may be able to see several other species of whales along the California coast, including the black and white Orcas (killer whales), Minke whales, Fin whales and others.
In addition, you may see dolphins and porpoises, and (of course) the ubiquitous seals and sea lions. Common species include Pacific bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Pacific white sided dolphin, Risso's dolphin, Dall Porpoise, and Northern right whale dolphin.
You'll also find California sea lions, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, Northern elephant seals, and the delightful California sea otters. If you fail to find seals along the California coast, you're just not looking!