There is something incredibly fascinating about whales, and visitors can see many of these large mammals up close as literally thousands make their way down the California coast every winter and spring to warmer waters.
“You never forget your first encounter with a whale,” said Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive officer for the California Travel and Tourism Commission (CTTC). “These awe-inspiring creatures are some of the largest and most beautiful mammals on earth, and California is the perfect spot to view them as they migrate. There isn’t a bad seat, as every coastal region offers great vantage points.”
In California, the gray whale is the most commonly seen migrating whale, reaching up to 45 feet in length, weighing up to 100,000 pounds each and numbering more than 20,000. The whales follow a route from the frigid Bering and Chukchi seas, north of Alaska, along the California coastline to the warm waters of Baja California. There they give birth to 1,500-pound calves before returning home to Alaska in the spring. The whales travel approximately 70 to 80 miles per day at a rate of 3 to 5 miles per hour. The whales’ 14,000-mile roundtrip trek is the longest known distance any mammal migrates on an annual basis.
One of the best spots in the state for viewing whales is in Mendocino County in the North Coast Region. The migrating whales pass by going south between the months of November and February. Because of the way the county is formed, visitors can often observe these gentle giants of the Pacific right from the shore, while pods nestle in Mendocino’s tame coves — especially near Point Cabrillo, under the lighthouse — to feed their young and rest. Whale watching festivals abound and include the Mendocino Whale Festival, which is usually the first weekend in March, and the Fort Bragg Whale Festival, held in mid-March. Other favorite regional vantage points are Centerville Beach and Guthrie Creek Headlands, which are located just outside of Ferndale.
During the months of December through May, the migration is also observed from the shores of Marin County, located in the San Francisco Bay Area Region, where whales can often be seen from the Point Bonita Lighthouse in the Marin Headlands or from various sites on the Point Reyes Peninsula. The areas around Chimney Rock and the Point Reyes Lighthouse are good vantage points in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Just off the coast of Santa Cruz, the nutrient-rich waters of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary offer fantastic whale watching. In Davenport, the whales pass close to the shoreline during their travels, making it a perfect perch for whale watching. Venturing out on boat affords great views as well, including other inhabitants of the bay, and whale-watching tours depart regularly from the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and the Santa Cruz Harbor.
In the Central Coast Region, Oxnard commemorates whale-watching season with the Annual Celebration of the Whales taking place December 29 through mid-April. Island Packers, Channel Islands Sportfishing and Captain Hook’s Sportfishing offer daily excursions from Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor to view the mammals as they migrate through the Santa Barbara Channel. Each cruise provides a narrated educational talk as visitors view Pacific gray whales on their annual journey. Many hotels also offer whale-watching packages. Travelers to San Luis Obispo can view migrating whales on the bluffs at Montana de Oro State Park, Piedras Blancas and Pismo Beach.
Whale watching is also a major visitor attraction in Southern California, especially the Los Angeles County Region, where thousands view the huge mammals from vantage points along the shore or aboard commercial and private boats. Redondo Sport Fishing offers twice-daily whale-watching and nature excursions from mid-December to the beginning of April. In addition to gray whales, visitors are likely to see baby whales, playful dolphins, sharks, sea lions and a variety of bird life. Trips leave from the sport-fishing pier along the International Boardwalk in the Redondo Beach Marina. Visitors can embark on a whale of an adventure with the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach by setting sail with experts and learning more about whales, as well as enjoying the aquarium’s indoor displays and films. On Catalina Island, Catalina Ocean Rafting, headquartered in Avalon, offers two-hour whale-watching trips via ocean rafts, where dolphins, porpoises and orca whales are also encountered.
In the Orange County Region, Dana Point’s 200-foot cliffs serve as a landmark for migrating whales, and an added bonus is Dana Point’s harbor design that allows for a quick trip out to sea so that whale watchers can spend even more time spotting whales. Spectators won’t want to miss the Annual Dana Point Festival of Whales, typically the first weekend in March, which draws thousands of visitors from around the world, and offers food, booths, games, displays and activities for all ages. In Newport Beach, boats leave daily from Newport Harbor January through late March. Some passengers are even lucky enough to spot seals and sea lions on the trip.
Visitors to the San Diego County Region have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of one of nature’s most extraordinary events. Situated on the panoramic Point Loma peninsula, Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego’s picturesque national park, offers an enclosed observatory overlook from which to spot the whales during migration season, December through March. Visitors can also explore whale exhibits and listen to a taped narration describing characteristics of these popular animals. Travelers can experience a thrilling whale watching excursion aboard an authentic 30-foot Navy SEAL Rigid Inflatable Boat through Adventure RIB Rides, docked at the marina located directly behind the East Tower of the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina on Harbor Island. OEX Dive and Kayak Centers offers a two-and-a-half hour Whale Watching Kayak Tour, available December to March. The approximate 1-mile paddle tour launches daily at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. from the La Jolla shores.
The CTTC is a non-profit organization with a mission to develop and maintain marketing programs — in partnership with the state’s travel industry — that keep California top-of-mind as a premier travel destination. For more information about the CTTC and for a free California Visitor’s Guide, go to www.VisitCalifornia.com.