A West Coast Boater's Whale-Watching Guide

By Patricia Rains

These majestic creatures are southbound in a hurry through February so they can give birth in the warm waters of Baja. Here's how you can safely observe the action.

Breaching whale at sunsetGray whales spend the summer feeding in Alaska's cold Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea, then migrate down the western shores of North America to winter over in Mexico's tropical lagoons, there to mate and give birth. (Photo: Daniel Bianchetta)

Whales are the largest creatures to inhabit the earth, as Jacques Cousteau told us, and among the most powerful, intelligent, far-ranging, and majestic. As boaters, what a remarkable opportunity we have to experience whales swimming free in the ocean. Winter is the peak period for whale watching along the Pacific Coast. California gray whales (eschrichtius robustus) in the Eastern Pacific number about 18,000, with another 6,000 located off Japan. Grays are by far the most frequently spotted whales off the U.S. West Coast, by a factor of 10. But also look for other species, including blue, fin, North Pacific right, orca, sperm, humpback, and minke whales — all in different locations and times.

Whale surfaces near boatThese boaters reported that, to their surprise, this whale surfaced near their boat. If this should happen, slow immediately to zero wake speed. (Photo: Amos Nachoum)

Grays have one of the planet's longest migrations. Whether traveling alone or in pods of up to 12 adults and calves, they swim about 12,400 miles on their round-trip journey from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska's chilly Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea to their winter playgrounds in Mexico's warm, shallow lagoons and back. Parts of their migration route brings them close to California shores — first while they're southbound in winter (mid-December through early February), and again when they're northbound in spring (March to mid-April).

Where And How To See Them

Nobody's crystal ball guarantees where you can see a whale on a particular day. Commercial whale-watching charter boats operate out of many West Coast ports, taking passengers out on half- or whole-day trips, depending on how far out the whales will be. In northwest Washington, it's all about the orcas. Oregon has a small group of resident grays, most easily seen off Depot Bay. In the San Francisco area, grays migrate close to Point Reyes National Seashore and the nearby Farallon Islands in late December and early January. Also, long-range whale-watching expeditions into Mexico's national marine parks are increasingly popular.

Boaters must operate cautiously in the presence of whales, obeying the federal rules by not getting too close to the whales, by not harassing them, and by not endangering them or people. Note that a perimeter of 100 yards (300 feet) is as close as any boaters are allowed to get — even kayaks.

Gray Behavior

Grays are mammals that must breathe air on the surface. After two or three separate inhalations and exhalations (visible spouts), the adult grays often dive and swim submerged for five or six minutes, surfacing for air farther along their desired path. Grays are baleen feeders: they filter small invertebrates within sediment from the sea floor through coarse baleen plates inside their massive lower jaw. To eat, adult grays roll on their sides and swim along the bottom while scooping in large mouthfuls, then forcefully eject the material through their baleen filters, straining out the food they need.

Fast Females, Faster Males

Pods of female grays usually travel at four to six knots when southbound from Alaska, slowing to feed primarily between Monterey and San Diego. Why? The Monterey Submarine Canyon pushes deepwater nutrients up onto shallow coastal shelves, so it's easier and more efficient for whales to feed here. Similar upwellings occur in the broader Channel Islands Shelf off Southern California. This is why gray whales in these two regions can be seen swimming slowly at three or four knots or meandering in circles near shore. Marine biologists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Birch Aquarium, at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, study the grays' behavior while they accompany the many half- and whole-day boat trips.

Two whales mostly out of the waterTwo humpback whales breach like acrobats in tandem, almost their entire bodies (approx. 67,000 lbs each) coming out of the water. (Photo: Daniel Bianchetta)

The bigger reason southbound females are in such a hurry is that many are pregnant, and they're anxious to reach such safe calving grounds in Mexico as the San Ignacio Lagoon National Whale Preserve in Baja. For centuries, grays have been returning here to mate one winter, then give birth here two winters later. Sometimes a calf that was born early will travel with its mother in the female pod, needing to stop and nurse along the way. This temporarily slows the female pod before it can speed up again. With the maternal clock ticking, they can't slow down much. These warm, shallow, super-salty lagoons ease the cow's birth process — babies are 15 feet long! — and help the newborn calf — 2,000 pounds at birth — stay afloat more easily as it nurses and learns to swim.

Pods of young male grays travel south faster — about eight knots — and often stay a bit farther offshore than the females, though they may all belong to family groups. Older bulls are largest and usually travel alone, aloof from even male pods. But some older bulls are thought to act as protectors during migration and may communicate dangers to other whales.

Whale and tour boatIn Monterey Bay, California, a humpback breaches very near a whale-watching vessel that was running at idle, wisely, because humpbacks had already been sighted in the vicinity. (Photo: Daniel Bianchetta)

Unencumbered, the larger males have no trouble swimming faster and diving to feed on deeper spots on the ocean floor. Males arrive at the mouths of the Mexican lagoons before the females and congregate just outside to greet female grays, especially those not yet pregnant.

El Vizcaino map

The San Ignacio Lagoon Whale Preserve in Mexico is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it's the closest whale park to the U.S. border. Park-ranger and naturalist guides have been well trained to international standards. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed inside the park at a time. You can board one of the 18-foot skiffs, called "pangas," operated by the park's certified guides who take you whale watching in Ojo de Liebre, the northern part of the park off Mexico's Bay of Vizcaino. The other park entrance is by sea near Abreojos, where the whales enter Laguna San Ignacio. Boaters in oceangoing vessels or RVs can anchor or park at Abreojos village and book a whale-watching trip inside the lagoon. Start early in the day, before the wind picks up in the lagoons, and prepare to spend all day observing whales until an hour before sunset.

Precious Birthing Zones

Pregnant female grays about to give birth enter the mouth of the lagoons near Guerrero Negro and Abreojos and immediately seek out the shallowest sandy coves and remote corners. Here, in these special birthing zones, they rest from the long migration and wait for their babies to emerge. Hourly, park guides keep informed by VHF about birthing zones in use so they can take you there without stressing the whales. The first calves to be born have the advantage of spending more weeks nursing on the mother's rich milk and gaining confidence within the safety of the lagoon before they all begin the northward migration. Calves born late in the season sometimes don't survive the perilous migration to Alaska.

An adult and calf orca whale skim the surfaceAn adult and calf orca whale skim the surface in pursuit of breakfast, probably a fast moving shoal of squid. (Photo: Daniel Bianchetta)

"The large concentration of gray whales that reside here each winter are extremely friendly and regularly approach our small pangas in a moving display that occurs nowhere else," says Brian Hutchinson, the Oceanic Society's director of outreach. "Friendlies" are what the park guides call the many mothers who've learned that it's safe to glide right up to the pangas and lift their barnacle-encrusted heads up to inspect the humans leaning over the sides of the boats.

Whales In Love

Meanwhile, whale courting displays and mating rituals are visible in the clear, calm, turquoise waters in the lagoons. Two or more males may pursue and gently surround a female that seems receptive. For days the males cavort flirtatiously, extending a fluke or nose to embrace or nuzzle the female. According to whale guide Jose Arriaga, gray males show patience, as a willing female takes her time selecting a single mate. One mating per winter often does the trick. Once a couple mates, they play near each other for the rest of their winter sojourn in the tropical lagoon.

In March, The Northbound Exodus Begins

The warm lagoons don't provide much feeding opportunity for adult grays, so they lose weight during their stay. Males and females without calves leave first. Some years, hunger draws the migration farther offshore, leading them more directly back to the Bering Sea feeding ground and making the northbound whale-watching season along California less distinct, at least for grays. Orcas are the only serious predator of grays, and pods of orcas often attack the more vulnerable baby grays during their northward migration. The other common dangers are long-line and drift fishing nets. Whale-rescue organizations are kept busy trying to save entangled whales spotted in coastal waters. Those caught farther out aren't so fortunate.

Look! More Whales!

In California's Monterey Bay, boaters can see — sometimes from shore — orcas, humpbacks, and blues when they come to feed above the Monterey Submarine Canyon. In Washington, whale watching typically focuses on orcas, the dramatic black-and-white whale with a very tall dorsal fin. Orca watching runs between April and September, primarily at Lime Kiln Point State Park in the San Juan Islands, off northwestern Washington.

Orcas are hugely popular for whale watching and for scientific whale research. Perhaps the smartest whale species, they typically travel in family pods recognized by researchers as either transient or resident groups. Individual orcas are identified, given names, and their travels and behaviors recorded for decades. For information specific to orcas, visit the Whale Research Center.

Couple on whale-watching tourA good pair of binoculars will help you spot whale "spouts" the exhaled breath of a whale at the surface.

Blue whales inhabit all the planet's oceans and communicate with their families by emitting and receiving low-frequency sound waves that reach across entire ocean basins. Although inaudible to humans, the voice of a blue easily travels between Hawaii and California. Think of blues as the planet's Global Singers. Feeding in summers in high latitudes, blues migrate to tropical waters in winter. They're seen off California and inside Mexico's lower Sea of Cortez.

Humpbacks visit the Hawaiian Islands by the tens of thousands each year from November through May, peaking from December through March. The 45-ton marine humpbacks like to congregate in the 600-foot depths around the Hawaiian Islands, which are surrounded by much deeper waters. As they leap high into the air and splash back thunderously, their incredible acrobatics thrill boaters lucky enough to be out there for the show. 

Captain Patricia Rains, our BoatUS West Coast contributing editor, had her first encounter with Grays while anchored inside a volcanic crater in the Sea of Cortez. Two mother Grays and two calves entered the confined bay while herding a pod of squid up onto the sandy shoals. The mothers used loud whistles and squeaks to stun them, then scooped up hundreds of squid into their baleen mouths as the babies watched — a magnificent display of whale intelligence.

— Published: February/March 2016

Tips For Boaters

  • Use 7 x 50 binoculars to spot whale "spouts," the misty clouds condensing 15 feet in the air as they exhale.
  • Identify the gray by its bumpy dorsal ridge with no prominent dorsal fin.
  • Notice the 20-foot-wide tail flukes as they dive.
  • Look for the glassy "footprint" on the surface where one just dove.
  • With patient observation, you'll notice three to five short, shallow dives of 15 to 30 seconds each, followed by a longer dive of three to six minutes.
  • Listen for VHF reports from other boats that have just spotted whales.
  • For photos or video, use a tripod or monopod for better stability, plus an image-stabilized camera.


Rules For All Boaters When Encountering Whales

No matter where you encounter whales, the West Coast or the East Coast, strict Marine Mammal Protection regulations from NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service are designed to keep you and the whales safe on your next boating trip:

  1. Be alert and avoid disturbing whales and changing their normal behavior.
  2. ALWAYS stay 100 yards away from a whale.
  3. If a situation arises in which you can't avoid a whale or whales by 100 yards, DO NOT move into the path of a whale or move faster than a whale.
  4. Always operate at a no-wake speed in the vicinity of whales.
  5. Do not make erratic speed or directional changes, unless it's to avoid colliding with a whale.
  6. Do not get between two whales, chase them, or feed them.
  7. To report an injured or entangled whale on the West Coast, call (877) SOS-WHALE (767-9425). In the Northeast or Greater Atlantic region, call the NOAA Whale Strandings Coordinator at (978) 281-9300. Or hail the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16.


News On East Coast Whales

If you're taking your boat through the cruising grounds of Florida and Georgia this winter and spring, take note of a law passed in 2013. North Atlantic right whales, large baleen whales averaging 45 to 50 feet in length, are in their prime calving season. Between December and March, they're giving birth in the shallow waters off Georgia and Florida. Vessels 65 feet and longer in that critical area are required to travel at speeds of less than 10 knots from November 16 to April 15. Smaller vessels are strongly encouraged to travel at less than 10 knots. The cruising area extends from north of Brunswick, Georgia, to south of St. Augustine, Florida. Violation of the federal regulations can result in criminal and civil penalties, with fines up to $100,000. Right whales are dark in color, appearing gray or black, and have no dorsal fin. They're identified by large white bumps on their heads, called callosities. If you happen upon one that's injured or tangled in fishing line, call the U.S.C.G. immediately on VHF Channel 16 and report its location and situation. See amazing photos of right whales coming to Georgia.


Whale Profiles Chart


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