For a Whale of a Weekend

by Louis Bignami

California offers some of the best whale watching in the world. Only Hawaii provides such a solid chance to see whales close up. Our namesake species, the California Grays, once drew whalers to the coast. These days the massive mammals -- large females reach 50 feet in lenght and top 40 tons -- now draw aquatic and shore-bound whale watchers twice a year.

Migrations start in fall when whales fattened on the krill and rich biomass of the Bering Sea follow the Pacific Coast south 12,000 miles to Scammons and other Mexican lagoons where, in protected, waters, they give birth to their young.

Nearly 18,000 of the 22,000 grays in the world stay inshore of the California current to avoid predators like killer whales as they closely approach tradtional points and outlooks from the California border all the way to Mexico. These social creatures travel in small pods of two to six that swim close to the surface. So they can be spotted by the white lace of their breathing or "blows" as in "there she blows" a whaler’s call happily no longer heard in U.S. waters. It’s not unknown to see other whale species, so you need to know you can identify grays by their lack of dorsal fins.

Gray whales also breach, or leap out of the water, to depending on who you believe, either dislodge parasites from their thick hide, or let other whales know their position. Even more interesting is spyhopping where a while sticks its head out of the water in an almost vertical position. Some say this aids navigation; others claim whales use gravity to help swallow. Clearly there’s a lot we don’t know about whales!

We do know their migration dates. In the fall watching starts early in December from Castle Rock near Crescent city and around Clam Beach and the headlands south of Ferndale. In Mendocino County Mackerricher State Park near Fort Bragg offers good sightings from the beach. Perhaps the best point for landlubbers north of San Francisco is Point Reyes Light-house where you can enjoy solid seminars on whales in January and February. Point Reyes Seminars (415) 663-1200 offer just that.

Various San Francisco charter boats run whale trips to the Faralone Islands, but it’s a shorter, quicker run out of Pilar Point Harbor or Monterey. If you like sailboats look into Chardonnay Sailing Charters on their big catamaran out of Santa Cruz (408) 423-1213. If you go out of San Francisco, check on Oceanic Society Expeditions out of Fort Mason at (415) 474-3385. Pismo and Avila Beach cruises fit nicely with weekends in San Luis Obispo or Morro Bay, and might offer an extra attraction on a visit to San Simeon.

From Santa Barbara south there are many options from December through April to catch herds migrating south and their return in March. Some of the best runs are out of Long Beach.

In San Diego the Cabrillo National Whale -Watching Weekend, January 21-22 in 1995 offers speakers, a sheltered whale watching station at Point Loma in San Diego where locals watched Dennis Connors lose the America’s Cup. It’s a deal at $3 a car.

Dana Point offers Festival of the Whales weekends in February through March 7, 1996. There’s a killer opening ceremony at La Plaza Park, a wonderful cruise by and moored inspections of tall ships at Dana Point Harbor and the O.C Marine Institute has a fine exhibit "Whaling & Art of the Sailor planned. The last weekend of the festival features sand sculpture and whaling contests. Information at 800-290-DANA

Mendocino’s Whale Festival kicks in March 5-6 with gallery exhibits and a massive pour of Mendocino wines. Check out the chowders and watch the whales from the headlands.

A couple of weeks later Fort Bragg’s Whale Festival -- March 18th in 1995 -- switches to microbreweries. There’s a short fun run and lots of whale-watching out of Noyo Harbor.

Weather makes a very large difference here. If it’s windy and there are lots of whitecaps -- as isn’t unusual in February or March -- it’s difficult to see whales blow and you see fewer pods from ship or shore. Fortunately, all of the best whale watching spots are wonderful weekend choices on their own. So if you miss out on the whales, you’ll certainly find shopping, restaurants and a host of other attractions.