By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
This month’s “Window On Nature” column delves into the natural history of gray whales. So it seemed appropriate in this column to suggest some places where these magnificent mammals can be seen during their 12,500-mile migration. Since this species migrates very near the Pacific coastline, they unknowingly accommodate humans’ curiosity about them. One year we made our own January-through-October migratory trip northward from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada along the West Coast. Throughout the journey, we were amazed by the number of excellent vantage points and whale sightings we encountered. Since it’s January and most gray whales are wintering in Mexico, we’ll start our whale-watching journey there and work our way north.
Because California has the longest coastline, you won’t be surprised to see that it also has the most viewing sites listed here. But great viewing spots also can be found throughout Oregon and Washington, and into Canada.
1. Laguna San Ignacio, Sonora, Mexico
Hundreds of gray whales use these shallow lagoons on the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico’s Baja peninsula as breeding and calving grounds. Adults of both sexes arrive from early December through late January. Mothers and their newborn calves stay apart from the other whales for a month or two following birth. Once the calves are strong enough for the long trip north, they leave the area in April or even as late as May. San Ignacio is approximately 500 miles south of San Diego.
2. Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Mexico
More than half of all gray whale births take place in Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Mexico, also located on the ocean side of Baja. This series of lagoons is more commonly known as Scammon’s Lagoon, named for Captain Charles Scammon, a 19th-century gray whale hunter. UNESCO has designated the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino, which includes both Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Laguna San Ignacio, a World Heritage site.
3. Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California
We give this site four stars for whale sightings, history, and just plain beauty. Each winter the whales swim by the western overlooks of Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument on their way south to Mexico. If you arrive during the summer, the grays aren’t around, but blue, humpback, and other whales might be seen.
4. Los Angeles, California
Several whale-watching cruises depart from Los Angeles. Our favorite was operated by Los Angeles Sightseeing Cruises. The company has a whale-watching Web site at www.2seewhales.com, which is a good source of migration information. The cruise company offers 2-1/2-hour whale-watching adventures between December 26 and April 9. For more information, call (888) 908-8800.
5. Long Point and Point Vicente, California
Long Point and Point Vicente, both near Los Angeles, are two observation posts used by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society (ACS) census to count gray whales passing through the area. And if anyone knows good whale watching sites, it would be the whaling society. The association offers good viewing tips, plus plenty of knowledge about gray whales and other members of the cetacean order, which includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. For more information, visit the ACS Web site at www.acsonline.org.
6. Santa Barbara, California
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary offers great whale watching. It is home to some 27 species of whales and dolphins, and many more creatures in its 1,658 square miles of protected ocean habitat. The city celebrates the peak of the whale season with the Santa Barbara Whale Festival, which will be held March 29 and 30, 2003. This is the weekend following FMCA’s 69th International Convention in Pomona, California.
7. Monterey Bay, California
The National Marine Mammal Laboratory (a division of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) annually counts migrating whales at its Granite Canyon Marine Laboratory research station just a few miles south of Monterey. Since gray whales migrate within a few miles of shore near Monterey, they are easily counted when the weather is clear. Gray whales can be seen in this area — heading either south or north — from December through May.
8. More California whale-watching sites
Whale-watching tours depart from many other ports in California. It helps to spread the impact of whale-watching along the entire 840-mile coastline. Here are some additional locations where you can find tours: Bodega Bay, Dana Point, Catalina Island, Half Moon Bay, Long Beach, Marina Del Ray, Monterey Bay, Morro Bay, Newport, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Ventura.
9. Learning more about whales
Besides having many places to see gray whales, California also boasts numerous museums, aquariums, and protected areas. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has a fine collection of well-interpreted materials, as do the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in Los Angeles, and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla. California also has four areas that have been declared National Marine Sanctuaries: the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara; and Monterey Bay, the Gulf of the Farallones, and Cordell Bank in the San Francisco area.
10. Whale Watch Weeks In Oregon
“Whale Watching Spoken Here” is a volunteer whale-watching program timed to coincide with the peak gray whale migration and the winter and spring breaks at local colleges. Trained volunteers are posted at 29 locations on or near the Oregon coast in order to provide visitors with information and to assist in spotting whales. Even though the volunteers leave to return to classes, they are quick to point out that gray whale cows and calves will still be migrating north through early June.
An added bonus for Oregon whale lovers is the fact that some 200 to 600 gray whales don’t migrate any farther north. They spend their summers along the Oregon coast, and can be seen from shore or from charter vessels. For more information, check out the program’s Web site at www.whalespoken.org.
11. Oregon viewing sites
Numerous whale-watching sites are found along the Oregon coastline. Here are a few –listed from north to south — for you to consider. Ecola State Park, located south of Seaside, derives its name from the Chinook word for whale. At the Neahkahnie Mountain Historic Marker Turnout on U.S. Route 101, park your motorhome carefully and you can see whales from inside your coach. When visiting Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint, tune your radio to 1610 AM to pick up broadcasts about whales. Should you stop at the Depoe Bay Sea Wall, you’ll find out why the locals claim Depoe Bay as the “Whale Watching Capital of the Oregon Coast.” The 93-foot-high Yaquina Head Lighthouse, near Newport, was built more than a century ago and is Oregon’s tallest lighthouse.
Other great viewing spots include Cape Perpetua Overlook and Interpretive Center; Sea Lion Caves Turnout on U.S. 101; Umpqua Lighthouse State Park; Shore Acres State Park; Cape Blanco State Park; and Harris Beach State Park.
12. Washington viewing spots
We didn’t find many whale-watching excursions along most of the Washington coastline, but once we got into the area around Puget Sound, they were abundant. Some whale-watching cruises leave from places like San Juan Island (especially Friday Harbor), Port Townsend, Orcas Island, and Anacortes. Although most trips are geared toward spotting orca whales and other marine wildlife native to the area, gray whales have been seen in Puget Sound and the Strait of San Juan de Fuca.
13. Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Most of the gray whales headed north to the Bering Sea pass the west coast of Vancouver Island in March and April, but since food is abundant, some decide to hang around for the summer. In October or November, they again join the other gray whales migrating south to Mexico. Scientists and captains of whale-watching boats are great sources of whale migration news.