Whale watching in Southern California is a year-round activity that is informative and fun for everyone. Whale watchers rarely get closer than 100 yards to the migrating whales, but even from the distance of a football field, it’s a thrilling sight that most never forget. San Diego’s marine life is both rich and diverse. Marine mammals, seabirds, and fish migrate from one part of the California coast to another or across the boundaries between Mexico and California. One of nature’s greatest spectacles is the annual migration of the gray whales, one of the largest mammals on earth.
The gray whale received its name from the gray patches and white mottling on its dark skin. On the skin are many scratches, scattered patches of white barnacles, and orange whale lice. Newborn calves are dark gray to black, although some may have distinctive white markings. Adult males measure 45 to 46 feet long and females tend to measure a bit longer. Both sexes weigh between 30 and 40 tons, calves weigh 1,100 to 1,500 pounds and are approximately 15 feet long. Grays are warm-blooded mammals that spend most of their lives in frigid arctic waters. How do the whales survive? Blubber. Blubber insulates them from the cold. The thickness of the blubber varies. In larger baleen whales, blubber also serves as fuel for migration, grays may lose up to 30 percent of their body weight during their annual winter migration to the tropics.
The four-month migration of 20,000 Pacific gray whales begins with the females, in October. The females depart their feeding grounds and head south to the subtropical lagoons along the Pacific coast of Baja California, where they will give birth to one calf. Within three hours of birth, a calf can keep itself afloat and swim on a steady course. A calf may rest on its mother’s back or fins until it becomes a stronger swimmer. About a month after the female’s departure, breeding adults, immature whales, and yearlings head towards Southern California. Mating takes place primarily during the southward migration, in late November and early December.
The whales’ journey north begins in February when the single whales are the first to leave. Mother-calf pairs depart a month or more later, giving calves time to grow strong on their mother’s rich milk, which is 35 to 50 percent fat (human milk is 2 percent fat). Calves consume an estimated 50 gallons of milk per day. By April, most will have passed by San Diego County on their northward route.
They make their return trip around March, with their newborns, completing roughly 12,500 miles, round-trip, covering nearly 100 miles a day. During a gray whale’s lifetime, it will swim the distance to the moon and back, the longest migration known for a mammal.
The predictable parade of gray whales along the California coast affords excellent whale-watching opportunities. Primetime for whale watching in San Diego is December through January for the southern migration and February through March for the northward migration. Gray whales generally travel alone or in pods of two or three; at the peak of migration, a dozen or more individuals may be seen together. They cruise slowly through nearshore waters at a speed of two to six miles per hour.
The key to successful whale watching is to get in tune with the breathing and diving rhythm of migrating whales. A gray whale has a predictable breathing pattern, generally blowing three to five minutes. A gray whale can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes. Deep diving is signaled when a whale raises its three- to five-foot-wide tail into the air. This behavior is called sounding.
The return of the whale to the surface is announced by a blow, a tall plume of vapor resulting from forceful exhalation. Grays have a double blowhole and when the blow is exhaled, the spout can reach up to 15 feet and looks like a heart shape from the front or behind. Grays occasionally hurl themselves out of the water and plunge back in with a tremendous splash! This is called a whale breach, scientists do not know why grays do this, but it is a very exciting sight to see and sometimes other whales in the area will copy this behavior, so keep your eyes open.
Gray whales only eat part of the year, during the four months of their feeding period they eat about 340,000 pounds of food, which is equal to 165 hamburgers per day. Gray whales do not have teeth, they capture and strain their food through a fringed curtain of baleen, which hangs from the roof of the mouth. Grays are the only bottom-feeding whales, they dive to the bottom and roll on their side, and gulp mouthfuls of mud from the bottom. As the whale closes its mouth, water and sediments squirt out through the baleen plates, leaving amphipods stuck to the baleen plates inside their mouths. Whales then use their tongues to loosen the amphipods from the baleen and swallow. They eat tiny shrimp-like animals like amphipods and other bottom-dwelling animals.
The Gray whale once graced both the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans. They were extinct in the Atlantic several hundred years ago, for unknown reasons. In the North Pacific, two separate stocks are currently recognized. The western Pacific population, comprised of just a few hundred animals, is endangered. Today, gray whales thrive only on the eastern side of the Pacific.
Gray whales are not the only large visitors to the coast of California. The largest animals ever to have lived on Earth visit too; the blue whales. Blue whales are almost as long as a Boeing 737, from 82 to 85 feet long, and weigh over 100 tons, females weighing as much as 150 tons. Blue whales are blue-gray in color and the underside of their flippers are a lighter color or white. The blue whale ranges from tropical to sub-arctic seas around the world.
During the summer feeding season, the blue whale gorges itself, consuming an astounding 4 tons or more each day. As a baleen whale, it eats the same way a gray whale does. Claves consume 100 gallons of the fat-rich mother’s milk each day, gain 200 pounds a day, or 8 pounds in an hour, and grow 1 and ½ inches in length a day. Though blue whales may be found singly or in small groups, it is more common to see them traveling in pairs, cruising 30 miles per hour but usually, cruising at a steady pace of 12 miles per hour.
Scientists suggest that blue whales migrate in a pattern that is like that of grey whales. They can be seen off the west coast of Baja California in large numbers in April. They appear in the area again in October but have not been reported between November and January. Catches of blue whales from British Columbia shore stations peaked in the past, suggesting a northward movement past Vancouver Island in spring and a southward shift in autumn.
Only a few thousand blue whales are believed to swim in the world’s oceans. For many years they were aggressively hunted for their blubber and oil, and their numbers were dramatically reduced. There has been a noted increase in blue whales each year off the coast of California. The best guess using current data has been around 2,134 near California in the mid-90s. Like many large animals, whales reproduce slowly. Females carry their young for a year before giving birth to a single calf.
Next to humans, killer whales are the most widely distributed mammal. Killer whales inhabit all oceans of the world but are most numerous in the Arctic, the Antarctic, and areas of cold-water upwelling. They can be sporadically sighted along the shores of Washington, Oregon, California, and Baja California and along the eastern coast of the United States.
In addition to cold water areas, killer whales also have been seen in warm water areas such as Hawaii, Australia, the Galapagos Islands, the Bahamas, and the Gulf of Mexico. Such sightings are infrequent, but they do demonstrate the killer whales’ ability to venture into tropical waters. Even more surprising, killer whales have been seen in freshwater rivers around the world, such as, the Rhine, the Thames, and the Elbe. One even traveled some 177 km up the Columbia River to eat fish.
San Diego offers multiple whale watching opportunities. Hornblower Cruises and Events proudly partner with the San Diego Natural History Museum (The NAT). Enjoy the professional live narration on marine life from the expert captains and volunteer naturalists called “The Whalers” from The NAT. Tours depart twice daily (619) 686-8715.
Get up close and personal on an ocean raft adventure with Xplore Offshore. Come feel the wind in your hair and the smell of the ocean from a custom-built, Navy Sealy-style boat. Be ready to see some of the coolest stuff you have ever seen. (858-361-9494)
Others offering whale watching tours are:
Oceanside Adventures (888) 507-1130
Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching (949) 496-5794