Where the Whales Are

While just about everyone has tinsel, eggnog, and Santa on their minds these days, I’m thinking of heading south of the border to catch a glimpse of the migrating gray whales.

Each winter, Pacific gray whales (among many other marine mammal species) cruise about 10,000 miles round trip from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic to Baja California, Mexico, where they mate, give birth to, and nurse their young. The population has rebounded from brushes with near extinction in the 1850s and 1920s, with an estimated 27,000 whales migrating today. But fewer whales have been spotted in recent years, so knowing what to look for when whale-watching is key.

First things first: You needn’t go all the way to Baja to see the whales. Many points along the Pacific Ocean in Canada and the U.S. provide glimpses of the gentle giants. In the north, you can spot them from Tofino, British Columbia; Depoe Bay and Sandy Point in Oregon; and Port Susan, on Camano Island, in Washington. And California has a selection of great viewpoints: Point Reyes, Old Point Loma Lighthouse, Santa Barbara Harbor, Cabrillo National Monument, Coal Point in Goleta, Mendocino, and San Diego Bay.

If you’re heading to the Pacific coast to catch sight of the whales, here are some pointers:

  • Bring binoculars
  • Clear mornings are your best bet
  • This may seem pretty obvious, but look west from your vantage point and train your gaze from the kelp beds where most gray whales swim (about three quarters of a mile from the coast) to the horizon
  • Grays travel about five miles per hour. They often dive for 3-6 minutes, and then surface for 3-5 blows in a row before descending again. These basics may help you follow your target south once you’ve initially spotted her
  • Look for the whale’s blow or spout that can reach15 feet in the air and may be visible for about five seconds
  • Gray whales extend their 12-foot wide fan-shaped flukes (tails) above water to dive deeper (and, lucky for us, it’s another indication of a whale on the move)
  • After diving deep, whales may leave something like a footprint, a smooth oval of water revealing where they’ve been

The 30-ton, 40-foot-long whales begin arriving in Baja this time of year, traveling about 100 miles a day; by mid-February, according to travel writer Katherina Audley, they’re “thicker than pigeons in Times Square.” By March, males and adolescents start their journey back north while nursing moms and their young linger, extracting all they can from the warm, salty lagoons.

If you can get down to Baja, consider Pachico’s Eco Tours Whale Watching Camp

at San Ignacio Lagoon. Pachico Mayoral, a local fisherman, had his first friendly encounter with a gray whale over 30 years ago. He was surprised when what many locals consider a “devil fish” surfaced and lingered by his boat for 40 minutes as he stroked its barnacled skin. Since then, he and his family have fought development and built a business to take travelers to see the whales up close in their 22-foot boat.

In addition to jaunts into the lagoon, whose green water often turns gray when it’s thick with whales, the family offers simple accommodations in solar-powered cabins, with hot showers, composting toilets, three meals a day, and a fridge stocked with soda and Coronas.

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The whales also hang out near Laguna Ojo de Libre, Laguna Guerrero Negro, and Magdalena Bay. For other eco-adventure options check out Baja and Beyond Tours, Baja Expeditions, Earthwatch Institute, and Lindblad Expeditions.
Lindblad Expeditions.

Though it’s geared toward kids and, as its name makes clear, tracks whales after their overwintering in Mexico as they head back north, Journey North

explains animals migrations and contains a lot of info on the biology and migration of gray whales, including live maps. And, finally, for something to read on the plane down, catch up on Baja and how development’s affecting it in Jim Conaway’s November/December 2008 feature, “Is Baja on the Block?”

Photo (top): Pat Hunt

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