Whale Parade

Gray whales attract viewers during their annual migratory passage along the Sonoma and Marin coastline.

By: Nathan Wright

Nov. 17, 2011

In a frigid bay in Alaskan waters, the world’s longest commute is now beginning: a three-month journey to the warmth of Mexico’s Baja lagoons. The voyage may sound like a vacation route aboard a cruise ship, but for the 50-foot Gray whales that make the ?annual 16,000-mile roundtrip, the ?centuries-old passage is a critical phase of their lifecycle.

In January, crowds will climb to the cliff-tops in Bodega Bay and Pt. Reyes to watch more than 10,000 Gray whales pass by, an annual tradition that has grown much in the past three years as some of the planet’s largest creatures have lingered in local coastal waters to feed. Area experts say the migration first passes by the Sonoma and Marin coastline beginning in January when pregnant mothers rush south to birth their young in Mexico. The migration reverses in spring and has recently lasted through late summer—when the whales head back north with their calves to the rich feeding grounds of Alaska.

The whales attract droves of onlookers—and dedicated volunteers who arrive each weekend at Bodega Head to share knowledge and advice on how to spot the submerged giants.

“They’re just so inspiring because they’re so large,” says volunteer Norma Jellison of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. “They breathe air. They’re mammals like we are. And they’ve been doing this migration for eons. It’s just so amazing when you see them.”

“They’re just big, beautiful animals,” says Bea Brunn, a 24-year member and co-founder of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. “It’s not something you see every day. You can’t see them in an aquarium. You have to see them out in the wild.”

Jellison and Brunn are two of a team of volunteers that set up an information table each weekend during migration season to educate the public and give tips on finding whales. They say January and February can be challenging, as lone whales make the trek miles off the coast.

Captain Rick Powers, owner of Bodega Bay Sport Fishing Center, offers an alternative to land-based viewing. Whale watchers willing to spend a little money to get a closer look can buy tickets aboard the Sea Angler, a 65- by 20-foot boat that can take onlookers to the middle of ?the action.

“We get right out there in the middle of the migratory path,” says Powers. “We usually find the animals every trip. There’s over 10,000 Gray whales migrating north and south every winter. It’s a steady flow all winter long.”
Powers says his boat captains have better than a 90-percent success rate in finding whales, and has video clips on his website to show just how incredible those experiences can be. These videos feature whales a short distance from the Sea Angler at the water’s surface, coming up for air and to spout. “The audio is what’s most incredible,” he says. “It’s some of the best you’ll ever see.”

While the whales’ trip south may require a boat to get the best views, their return trip in March and April is an entirely different story. Mother Gray whales stick close to shore on their way back to Alaska, avoiding predators and giving shoreline onlookers a much closer look. “On the northward migration they’re barely outside the rocks,” says Brunn. “You can almost reach out and touch them. They come up to the surface more often. The calves obviously can’t stay underwater as long as the grownups.”

Recent summers have been the best in recent history as the migration has lingered off the California coastline much longer than before. “There’s been a lot of krill in the water and the whales are opportunistic eaters,” explains Jellison. “They discover a good source and they stick around. They’ve put on quite a show for those who have found out about it and come out to Bodega Head.”

And that coastline show, says Jellison, is a great opportunity for those who don’t want to pay to whale watch and spend time on a boat in the open ocean. “Not everyone can do that,” she says. “They may not have access to a port. They may get seasick. [From the coastline,] everyone can see Gray whales.”

Damien Jones, a Park Ranger at the Sonoma Coast, says the whales are among the most popular attractions at the state park—especially with the large mammals lingering much longer. “It’s amazing the sheer number of people who come out to see the whales,” he says. “They’ve been able to see whales for most of the year. It’s definitely shifted; it’s almost a year-round occurrence, which is a change from the past.”

Bodega Head isn’t the only cliff-top spot to watch the whales. The Pt. Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock are also among the best places on California’s coast. Loretta Farley, a park ranger with the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, says a ranger is staffed at the lighthouse to talk whales on weekends starting the first weekend after Christmas.

“Whale watching is a sport for the patient,” Farley says. “Generally, if you’re there for an hour or so you’ll see something,” she notes.

Farley says Gray whales are spotted from afar in three ways.
The first, and most common, is when one comes to the surface to breathe. “Their breath or spout looks like a little puff of smoke or a piece of cotton above the water,” she explains. “When they come up for breath you may see the surface of their back come up over the water, and a few minutes later, when they breathe again, you may see their tail.”

The less common occurrence is when they breach the water. “The whale leaps out of the water and slams itself on the surface, like a belly-flop,” she says. “Maybe they have itchy parasites or maybe it’s because it’s really fun. No one really knows.”

The third—also rare—is when the whale sticks its head out of the water. “It may be locating, looking around, looking for landmarks,” says Farley.

Farley says the whales aren’t the only wintertime attraction in Pt. Reyes. Northern elephant seals begin arriving around the time the whales start passing by, and March and April are spectacular months for wildflowers at Chimney Rock.

The whales are often the main attraction for visitors, but Farley says inland visitors often come to Pt. Reyes to get out to the country for an afternoon.  “It’s a great afternoon,” says Farley, explaining why folks take the trip to see the whales. “You can drive an hour or so, reach a beautiful natural area, maybe stop for some gourmet food. It’s the total experience of getting a little bit of everything. The countryside, some fresh air, and some whale watching.”  

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