Thar She Blows! Whale Watching

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

The California Coastal Trail provides some of the best whale watching in the state. If you hike the coast between December and May, you’ll have excellent chances to see some of the 18,000 California gray whales that swim the west coast each year. If you hike CCT in summer or autumn, you might get lucky and spot humpback whales or harbor porpoises swimming or breeding offshore.

Unlike other whales, grays migrate in sight of land, giving you a great chance to observe their 12,000-mile round trip between Alaska’s Bering Sea and Baja California. The gray whales, led by pregnant mothers, first appear off northern California in mid-December, continuing their trek south to Baja into February. They travel about five miles an hour up to twenty hours a day, cruising a mile or two offshore.

Grays return north in March and April. Mothers with young calves (1500 pounds at birth!) dawdle along as late as July. The northern trekkers minimize current drag by swimming just beyond the forming breakers.

California’s official marine mammals usually travel in pods of three to eight, although some prefer to cruise solo. An average gray weighs 30 tons and is 40 feet long, with a life span similar to ours. They’ve been making their annual trek for around five million years. Their ancestors once lived on land, turning to the sea around 30 million years ago.

Humpback whales also migrate off California’s coast, but mostly stay far from shore. While spotting humpbacks from land is unpredictable, they come closest to local shores during summer or autumn feeding. Sometimes humpbacks breed along the north coast, a rare sight to see from land. Harbor porpoises, much smaller cetaceans, sometimes visit the California coast in summer.

You’re most likely to spot the whale by its spout or blow, the misty exhalation from the blowhole atop its head. Grays and humpbacks blow steam six to 15 feet high. You might hear the “whoosh” of exhalation from a half mile away.

Whales typically blow three to eight times at 10- to 30-second intervals, then take a deep dive, or sound, flipping the fluke (tail) on the way down.A normal dive lasts about four minutes, reaching depths of 120 feet.

Your best whale watching occurs when the ocean is calm before winds and waves pick up, often in the morning, Binoculars enhance viewing, but when whales are there you can see them with the naked eye. For the best viewing from shore, find a point jutting out to sea. If you are visiting the coast during prime whale season, consider taking a whale watching cruise from the nearest harbor.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume One: Oregon to Monterey (2nd Edition) by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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