Winter is premier time for Nevadans to go whale watching

One of the best displays nature affords involves its largest animals: whales.

Southern Nevadans can enjoy that experience because of their access to the Pacific coast, and the next few months are the ideal time of year to view whales. Gray whales pass the California coast on their annual, 10,000-mile round trip — the longest migration of any mammal.

It is thought that gray whales are extinct in the Atlantic Ocean from hunting in the 17th and early 18th centuries. But because of international hunting bans, numbers in the Pacific have rebounded to about 25,000 whales, and the species is no longer considered endangered there.

If you see one, you’ll recognize it. Adult grays average 43 to 49 feet long. Even their newborns are 16 feet . They are slate-gray, but you’ll see white spots caused by barnacles and other critters that seek free rides on this bus-sized leviathan. Grays feed on small, bottom-dwelling marine animals.

Gray whales head south every fall from the Bering and Chukchi seas — between Alaska and Siberia — and migrate to the waters off Baja California, where they mate and calve. They are believed to navigate by following the coastline, some so closely they are visible from the shore. On a commercial whale-watching expedition, your chances of seeing at least one are good. Fortunate passengers might even see other whales such as minke, humpback, finback or killer whales.

If the weather is cooperating, you will also see dolphins. Most frequently seen is the common dolphin, which is about 7 feet with a mix of black and gray on top and white on its underbelly. These dolphins love to “bowride” along the bow of the boat, surfing on the boat’s pressure wave. Other dolphins found here include the Pacific white-sided, bottlenose and Risso’s.

Watching season is in full swing. Early in December, a company from Dana Point reported seeing three humpback whales, two gray whales and 1,000 common dolphins in one day. Also on a recent excursion out of Newport Beach, the tour sighted 10 orcas (killer whales). Many of the companies report their sightings daily on their websites.

Whale-watching excursions employ different sizes and types of boats. Some last a couple of hours, while others can be a full day. Ones I recommend include Captain Dave’s Dana Point Whale Watching, Dana Point, 949-488-2828, www.dolphinsafari.com; Newport Landing Whale Watching, Newport Beach, 949-675-0551, www.newportwhales.com; Next Level Sailing, San Diego, 800-644-3454, www.nextlevelsailing.com; and Hornblower Cruises, San Diego, 888-467-6256, www.hornblower.com.

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 deborabus@aol.com.

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