Over the next couple of months is the ideal time to head to Southern California to watch whales and dolphins in the Pacific Ocean. It’s something everybody should do once, and with the fringe benefits of experiencing the open sea and the salt air, you can have a great day even if you don’t manage to see one of the world’s biggest creatures.
From December to March, gray whales will be passing the Southern California coast on their annual cruise of 10,000 miles round trip — the longest migration of any mammal on earth. Every fall, they head south from the Bering and Chukchi seas between Alaska and Siberia. They’ll end up in the warm lagoons of Baja Mexico for mating and calving.
Gray whales once lived in the Atlantic Ocean, where it is thought overhunting in the late 17th and early 18th centuries drove them into extinction. But the story is happier off the Pacific Coast of North America. Though their numbers declined to about 15,000 in the 1970s, it is now believed there are 25,000 in this area.
If you see one, you’re unlikely to mistake it for anything else. Adult gray whales average 43 feet to 49 feet long, and even newborns measure 16 feet.
If you are extremely fortunate on your whale-watching excursion, you might even see Minke, humpback, finback or killer whales. In the summer, blue whales, largest of all, are common.
One animal you will almost certainly get to see, if weather cooperates, is the dolphin. Most likely it will be the common dolphin, which is normally about 7 feet long, has an interesting mix of gray and black on top and a white underbelly. They often can be seen jumping and swimming alongside the boat, or “bow riding” the pressure waves created by the hull. Pods average about 200, but it isn’t rare to see pods as large as 1,000 and once in a while as many as 5,000. Besides common dolphins, others in this region include the Pacific white-sided, bottlenose, Risso and melon head dolphins.
Whale-watching excursions leave from various ports in Southern California, and all have different sizes and types of boats. The trips they offer are of varying lengths, from a couple of hours to a full day, depending on the company. Some include Captain Dave’s Dana Point Whale Watching, Dana Point, 949-488-2828 or dolphinsafari.com; Newport Landing Whale Watching, Newport Beach, 949-675-0551 or newportwhales.com; Next Level Sailing, San Diego, 800-644-3454 or nextlevelsailing.com; and Hornblower Cruises, San Diego, 888-467-6256 or hornblower.com.
My daughter and I have gone on whale- and dolphin-watching excursions about a dozen times. We have set sail from Newport Beach, San Diego, and couple of times from Dana Point, where the trip can include visiting Catalina Island. Dana Point gave us our favorite whale memories because we not only saw more of the great beasts but a few times got magnificent close-up views of whales breaching — leaping clear of the water to land with a thrilling splash. But there’s little evidence the port of departure you choose will much improve or decrease your chances of seeing whales. I can’t resist saying this: Our good luck at Dana Point might have been a fluke!
Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.