Each winter California welcomes the return of its official marine mammal, the gray whale.

The annual migration of more than 18,000 gray whales begins high in Alaskan waters. The giants then travel southward along California's coastline en route to their breeding and birthing waters in Baja California. These majestic mammals hug California's shoreline at Point Reyes, past the Farallon Islands, travel through Half Moon Bay and Monterey Bay, then follow the coastline past Southern California before reaching Mexico.

The whales travel 70 to 80 miles per day at a rate of three to five miles per hour. A spout of vaporized water, at times reaching 12 feet, becomes visible to watchers as the whales surface every three to five minutes to breathe. Their 12,000-mile round-trip trek is the longest known distance any mammal migrates on an annual basis. During the migration, the whales will travel in small groups and stay fairly close to the shoreline for protection from predators, such as killer whales. By mid-February, the migration pattern reverses as the whales lead their new-born calves back to the chilly Arctic waters of the Bering Sea in Alaska.

Gray whales-the only whale species to fully recover its pre-whaling population levels-may reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 45 tons. Named for their gray coloring, the whales have mottled gray skin due to both natural pigmentation, and whale lice barnacle colonies. When swimming or hovering just below the surface, the whales may appear uniformly white or slate blue. One of the gray's more distinctive traits is its lack of a dorsal fin. Instead, a low hump is followed by a series of bumps down the back.

The initial sighting of the gray whale is exhilarating. The blow-a puff of steam standing up to 12 feet off the water-will appear; where there is one blow, others are sure to follow as whales tend to travel in groups of two to six. An amazing maneuver the whales perform is spyhopping. A whale may stick its head above water one or more times consecutively-it is believed that the whale is either getting bearings or using gravity to help swallow. The most dramatic and exciting behavior observed is breaching. The whale will leap out of the water and fall to its side or back making a spectacular splash. This behavior can be perceived as a form of communication to other whales in the area or means of "back scratching" to release the numerous parasites from the whales' hides.

The four-month period from December through March is a celebration for aficionados of marine and coastal biology life as various festivals, cruises and events are planned in conjunction with the gray whale's yearly migratory pattern.

For Landlubbers

Point Reyes National Seashore, home of the picturesque Point Reyes Lighthouse in Marin County, has one of the best viewing locations. In addition, a number of options are offered for naturalist talks on gray whales. The Lighthouse Visitor Center is open from 10:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Parking is very limited and weekends can be crowded. A shuttle service will begin on December 31 through March, operating on weekends and holidays, weather permitting. Tickets may be purchased at the Ken Patrick Visitor Center at Drake's Beach. The road to the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock will be closed on holidays and weekends except for the shuttle service. For details on the talks and shuttles, call (415) 663-1092.

Ricochet Ridge Ranch, across from MacKerricher State Park on the Mendocino Coast at Ft. Bragg, offers horseback riding along the beach where riders often see gray whales and harbor seals. Call (707) 964-7669 for further information and reservations.

Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma in San Diego is home to a glassed-in whale-watching observatory featuring whale exhibits and a taped narration. The center is open daily 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. For more information, call (619) 557-5450.

Ricochet Ridge Ranch, across from MacKerricher State Park on the Mendocino Coast at Ft. Bragg, offers horseback riding along the beach where riders often see gray whales and harbor seals. Call (707) 964-7669 for further information and reservations.

Other Areas For Active Viewing Include:

Del Norte County
  • Klamath Overlook - Approximately four miles off U.S. 101 on Requa Road at the top of the mountain that overlooks the mouth of the Klamath River and Pacific Ocean.
  • Endert's Beach Overlook - Approximately three miles off U.S. 101 on Endert's Beach Road to the parking lot and viewing area which is a redwood deck built on top of a rock.
  • Battery Point - This is accessible only at low tide from the parking area at the foot of "A" Street in Crescent City.
  • Brother Jonathan Vista Point.- Located on Pebble Beach Drive at Ninth Street in Crescent City. - Viewing area is about 10 feet above the surface of the ocean.
  • Point St. George - Located about three miles northwest of Crescent City at the west end of Washington Boulevard.
  • Castle Rock, near Crescent City - The best location for viewing this island is along Pebble Beach Drive north of the Brother Jonathan Vista Point, south of Point St. George.

Humboldt County

  • Dry Lagoon, Humboldt Lagoons State Park - Freshwater Lagoon, Redwood National Park near Orick
  • Gold Bluffs Beach in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
  • McKinleyville Vista Point off U.S. 101
  • Palmer's Point and Wedding Rock, Patrick's Point State Park - Trinidad - Scenic drive, south of Trinidad offers a number of spectacular vista points as well as access to beaches such as Luffenholtz Beach.
  • Shelter Cove - Take the Garberville/Redway exit off US 101 to the Lost Coast. Table Bluff: South spit of Humboldt Bay
  • Trinidad Head at Trinidad Harbor, Trinidad

Los Angeles County

Catalina Island

  • Korean Friendship Bell
  • Point Fermin Lighthouse

Mendocino County

  • Laguna Point at MacKerricher State Park;
  • Mendocino Headlands
  • Point Cabrillo Lightstation Preserve

Monterey County

Monterey Peninsula, Big Sur

Orange County:

  • Dana Point

Santa Cruz County

  • Pigeon Point, Greyhound Rock and Davenport Coastline

San Luis Obispo County:

  • Montaña de Oro State Park, Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, Cayucos, San Simeon State Beach, Moonstone Beach Drive

Santa Barbara County:

  • Santa Barbara Coastline
  • Channel Islands - Shoreline Park

Sonoma County:

  • Stillwater Cove County Park and Bodega Head

California State beaches also offer a number of programs and locations for viewing migrating whales. For details on what programs are offered, contact the state park listed below, call (916) 653-6995 or visit www.parks.ca.gov for general information on all state parks.

  • Fort Ross State Historic Park (707) 847-3708
  • Garrapata State Park (831) 624-4909
  • MacKerricher State Park (707) 937-5804
  • Manchester State Beach (707) 937-5804
  • Mendocino Headlands State Park (707) 937-5804
  • Patrick's Point State Park (707) 677-3570
  • Point Lobos State Reserve (831) 624-4909
  • Point Sur State Historic Park (831) 625-4419
  • Salt Point State Park (707) 847-3221
  • Sonoma Coast State Beach (707) 875-3483
  • Silver Strand State Beach (619) 435-5184

California Festivals Celebrate The Gray Whales

Monterey Peninsula Whalefest - January, 2001. Welcome the Grays at Monterey Bay, Point Lobos and Big Sur. Take part in this two-week celebration with whale-themed art shows, natural history exhibits, and children's programs at dozens of cultural and natural history institutions, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium. For more information and a schedule of events, call: (831) 644-7588.


Cabrillo National Monument Whale-WatchWeekend-January - Special speakers and presentations are included in weekend festivities at the enclosed whale-watching station at the end of Point Loma in San Diego. Weekend date to be determined by November. For more information, call: (619) 557-5450.
Oceanside Harbor Whalefest - January - Highlight of this weekend event will be a giant whale sand sculpture designed to be a hands-on community art project. Each morning at 9 a.m. a renowned sand sculpture will assist families in creating the gigantic artistic tribute. Bring a bucket, shovel, and spray bottle with tap water to participate. Face painters, clowns and entertainment will also be featured at various Harbor venues throughout the weekend as well as whale-watching excursions. For more information, call (800) 350-7873.

West Marin's Whales, Wildlife and Wildflowers Festival - January - April. Celebrate whale-watching from Point Reyes National Seashore, locally-grown oysters and seafood, breeding season for elephant seals, Great Blue Heron and Great Egrets, spring wildflower and garden tours, art exhibits, Robert Burns Night at Muir Beach, full moon walks at two historic lighthouses. For more information, call (415) 499-5000.

Dana Point's Annual Festival Of The Whales - February - March. After an opening ceremony at La Plaza Park with a two-day street faire, this spectacular event will kick-off with a grand display of tallships at the Dana Point harbor. The Orange County Marine Institute will sponsor a "Whaling & Art of the Sailor" exhibition, and the last weekend will finish with a "wag-a-thon" plus much more. For more information, call (800) 290-DANA or (949) 496-1555.

Mendocino's 18th Annual Whale Festival - March. Celebrate in the village's galleries and shops with premium wines from Mendocino's top vintners. Other highlights include chowder tasting, marine art exhibits, music and whale- watching walks on the headlands. For more information, call (707) 961-6300 or (800) 726-2780; Fax (707) 964-2056.

Fort Bragg's 19th Annual Whale Festival - March. Migrate to the clam chowder and microbrew tasting with the Whale Run (10K run or 5K walk). Experience the excitement of whales in motion with a boat excursion at Noyo Harbor. For more information, call (707) 961-6300 or (800) 726-2780; Fax (707) 964-2056.

Santa Barbara 6th Annual Whale Festival -March. Entertainment, marine educators, children's carnival, food booths, whale presentations, arts and crafts show, music and more. Coincides with the northern migration of the gray whale and promotes awareness of the 27 species of cetateans that have been sighted in the Santa Barbara Channel. Festival is located between the train station and Stearns Wharf. For more information, call (805) 897-3187 or visit http://www.thebigblue.org

Cabrillo Marine Aquarium's Whale Fiesta - June. The Aquarium hosts a full day of events celebrating whales including a sand sculpture contest, food booths, crafts, children's activities, entertainment, and booths on sea life issues. For more information call (310) 548-7562.

Suggested Reading

Oceanic Society Field Guide to the Gray Whale, published by Sasquatch Books is a practical guide to watching whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals. It contains tour operator listings, a natural history of marine mammals, and is a useful field guide for species identification. (ISBN #0-912365-25-0)

Heading For Sea

Sightseeing boats offer the best vantage point to view the state marine mammal, and there are many whale-watching operators along the California coast. The following list includes operators that offer tours, field seminars, and/or lectures during an ocean-bound excursion: (Alphabetical by location)

Bodega Bay

Wil's Fishing Adventures
1580 E. Shore Road
Bodega Bay, CA 94923
(707) 875-2323
December - April

Bodega Bay Sport Fishing
1410 Bay Flat Road
Bodega Bay, CA 94923
(707) 875-3344
December - April

Catalina Island

Catalina Ocean Rafting
P.O. Box 2075
Avalon, CA 90704
(800) 990-RAFT
(310) 510-0211
January - March

Descanso Beach Ocean Sports
Whale Watching Kayak Trips
P.O. Box 386
Avalon, CA 90704
(310) 510-1226

Channel Islands/ Ventura/Oxnard

Channel Islands National Park
Visitors Center
1901 Spinnaker Drive
Ventura, CA 93001
(805) 658-5730
December - March

Channel Islands National Park
Visitor Information Station
113 Harbor Way
Santa Barbara, CA 93109
(805) 658 - 5730
December – March

Cisco Sport Fishing
4151 South Victoria Avenue
Oxnard, CA 93035
(805) 985-8511
January - March

Island Packers
1867 Spinnaker Drive
Ventura, CA 93001
(805) 642-1393
December 26 - March
Departure points: Ventura and Oxnard

Dana Point

Dana Island Yachts
34551 Casitas Place
Dana Point, CA 92629
(949) 248-7400
December - April

Dana Wharf Sport Fishing
34675 Golden Lantern
Dana Point, CA 92629
(949) 496-5794
December - April

Orange County Marine Institute
24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive
Dana Point, CA 92629
(949) 496-2274
January - March

Fort Bragg

Anchor Charter Boats
P.O. Box 103
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 964-4550
December - April

Party Boat "Patty C"
P.O. Box 572
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 964-0669
February - April

Noyo Belle
North Harbor Dr.
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 964-3104
December - March

Tally Ho
North Harbor Dr.
Fort Bragg, CA 95437 (707) 964-2079
December - March

Telstar Charters
North Harbor Dr.
Fort Bragg, CA 95437
(707) 964-8770
December - April

Half Moon Bay

Captain John's
Pillar Point Harbor
El Granada, CA 94018
(415) 726-2913
December - March

Huck Finn Sport Fishing
15 Johnson Pier - Pillar Point
El Granada, CA 94018
(415) 726-7133 or (800) 572-2934
January - March

Oceanic Society
Ft. Mason Center, Bldg. E
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 474-3385
December - April

Humboldt County

Center Activities
University Center
Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521
(707) 826-3357
August - May

King Salmon Charters
1875 Buhne Drive
Eureka, CA 95503
(707) 442-3474
January - April

Long Beach

Belmont Pier Sport Fishing
End of Belmont Pier
Long Beach, CA 90803
(562) 434-6781
January - March

Star Party Cruises
140 Marina Drive
Long Beach, CA 90803
(562) 431-6833
January - April

Shoreline Village Cruises
429 Shoreline Village Drive, Suite N
Long Beach, CA 90803
(562) 495-5884
January - April

Catalina Cruises
320 Golden Shore Blvd.
Long Beach, CA 90802
(800) 228-2546
January - April

Long Beach Sport Fishing
Queen's Wharf
555 Pico Avenue
Port of Long Beach, CA 90802
(562) 432-8993
January - mid-April

Marina Del Rey

Charter Connections
5015 Pacific Avenue
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
(310) 827-4105
(Weekend excursions)
December - April

Paradise Bound
17123 Round Hill Drive
Huntington Beach, CA 92649
(800) 655-0850
(310) 578-7963
January - March

Del Mar Sportfishing
13759 Fiji Way
Marina del Rey, CA 90292
(310) 372-2712
January - April

Monterey Area

Chris's Fishing Trips
48 Fisherman's Wharf, #1
Monterey, CA 93940
(831) 375-5951
December - February

Monterey Sport Fishing and Whalewatching
96 Fisherman's Wharf, #1
Monterey, CA 93940
(800) 200-2203 or (831) 372-2203
December - March

Monterey Bay Whale & Nature Cruises
Fisherman's Wharf
Monterey, CA 93940

Randy's Fishing Trips
66 Fisherman's Wharf, #1
Monterey, CA 93940
(408) 372-7440
December - March

Morro Bay

Virg's Landing
1215 Embarcadero
Morro Bay, CA 93442
(805) 772-1223
December - April

Newport Beach

Bongos & Bongos II Sportfishing
2130 Newport Blvd.
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 673-2810
December - April

Davey's Locker-Balboa Pavilion
400 Main Street
Balboa, CA 92661
(949) 673-1434
December - April

Hook Sportfishing Charters
1306 Skyline Drive
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(800) 583-8133
December - April

Marina Watersports
600 East Bay Ave.
Balboa, CA 92661
(949) 673-3372
December - April

Newport Landing Sportfishing
309 Palm, Suite F
Balboa, CA 92661
(949) 675-0550
December - April

Orca Yacht Charter
2901 W. Pacific Coast Hwy, Suite 220
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 650-6722
December - April

American Yacht Charters
670 Lido Park Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 673-4453
December - April

Electra Cruises
3405 Via Oporto,
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 723-1069
December - April

Pacific Avalon Yacht Charters
3404 Via Oporto, #103
Newport Beach, CA 92663
(949) 673-8545
December - April

Pismo Beach/Avila Beach

Avila Beach Sportfishing
Port San Luis Marina
P.O. Box 899
Avila Beach, CA 93424
(805) 595-7200
December - April

Redondo Beach

Redondo Sportfishing
181 N. Harbor Drive
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
(310) 374-3481
December 26 - early April

Sport Fishing Pier
233 N. Harbor Drive
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
(310) 372-3566
December - April

San Diego Area

Birch Aquarium at Scripps
2300 Expedition Way
La Jolla, CA 92093
(619) 534-7336
January - February

H&M Landing
2803 Emerson Street
San Diego, CA 92106
(619) 222-1144
December - March

1066 North Harbor Drive
on the Embarcadero
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 234-8687
December - March

Orion Sailing Charters
1380 Harbor Island Drive
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 574-7504
December - March

San Diego Natural History Museum
1788 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101
(619)232-3821, ext. 203
Excursions: January - February

San Diego Harbor Excursions
1050 North Harbor Drive
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 234-4111
December - April

Charter Connection
1715 Strand Way
Coronado, CA 92118
(619) 437-8877
December - March

San Francisco

Oceanic Society Expeditions
Fort Mason Center, Building E
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 474-3385

San Pedro

Catalina Ocean Rafting
P.O. Box 2075
Avalon, CA 90704
(800) 990-RAFT
(310) 510-0211
January - March

Spirit Cruises
Ports O'Call Village, Berth 77
San Pedro, CA 90731
January - April

Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
3720 Stephen White Drive
San Pedro, CA 90731
(310) 548-7562
December - April

Santa Barbara Area/Channel Islands

The Condor - Whale Watching Tours
Sea Landing
Santa Barbara, CA 93109
(805) 965-1985
Year-round tours

Santa Barbara Museum of
Natural History
2559 Puesta Del Sol Road
Santa Barbara, CA 93105
(805) 682-4711, ext. 315

Truth Aquatics
301 W. Cabrillo Blvd.
Santa Barbara, CA 95310

Sailing Center
Santa Barbara, CA 93109
(800) 3509090
(805) 962-2826
February - April

Sea Landing
301 West Cabrillo Blvd.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
(805) 963-3564
January - April

Captain Don's Tours
219 Stearns Warf
P.O. Box G
Santa Barbara, CA 93101

Santa Cruz

Chardonnay Sailing Charter
P.O. Box 2095
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
Res: (831) 423-1213
January - March

Santa Cruz Sport Fishing, Inc.
H Dock - Upper Harbor
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-4690
January - March

Shamrock Charters
2210 East Cliff Drive
Santa Cruz, CA 95062
(831) 476-2648
Mid Nov - March 1

  For more ideas on nature excursions in California, visit the California Division of Tourism's Web site at http://gocalif.ca.gov