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Pacific Gray Whales: 4 Helpful Whale Spotting Tips

Posted by Jody on December 13, 2011

It’s time to dust off those binoculars! Tis the season for whale watching in sunny Southern California. Each year, Pacific Gray Whales can be spotted off the coast of Southern California from December through March.  According to the National Park Service: “Each winter, the Pacific Gray Whales pass by the western overlooks of Cabrillo National Monument.  After spending the summer feeding in the food-rich waters of the Arctic, the Grays swim south along the coast to the bays of Baja California, where they mate and nurse their young. Along the way, they pass Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument, where you can witness the annual winter journey.”

Cabrillo National Monument (©Jody Diehl)

Cabrillo National Monument lies west of the city of San Diego, on the tip of the Point Loma Peninsula. The park is hosting Whale Watch Weekend on January 7 & 8, 2012. This family friendly event celebrates the diverse marine life of San Diego and features both whale watching and tide pooling.

If you cannot attend the whale watching weekend, no worries, find a  high coastal vantage point and scan the Pacific Ocean about 3/4 mile from the shoreline to the horizon. Just follow these suggestions for what to look for when watching for the Pacific Gray Whales!  These whale spotting tips come from the Cabrillo National Monument website:

1) The Blow or Spout – When warm, moist air exhaled from the whales’ lungs meets the cool air at the ocean surface, it creates the bushy column we call a blow, or spout. A gray whale’s blow is up to 15 feet high, and each blow is visible for about five seconds.  Anticipate that the whale will dive for three to six minutes, then surface for three to five blows in row, 30 to 50 seconds apart, before diving deep for three to six minutes again.

2) The Flukes (Tail) - Before making a long, deep dive, a gray whale often displays its 12-foot wide fan-shaped flukes, or tail. The weight of the tail above the whale’s body helps the whale to dive deep.  The flukes have no bones and connect to the body and tail muscles by banks of tendons.  The gray whale normally swims about five miles per hour, about the speed of a child on a bicycle.

3) The Knuckled Back and Footprint – If the lighting is right, and if the whale is close enough, it is possible to see the back of a gray whale during and after the blow.  It is shiny and black or gray, with a knuckled ridge along the spine. After the whale submerges you may note an elongated, smooth oval of calm water, known as a footprint, where the whale has been.

4) Breach and Splash - Gray whales occasionally hurl themselves out of the water and plunge back in with a tremendous splash.  This is called breaching.  Scientists do not know why gray whales do this, but it is very exciting sight to see.  Sometimes other whales in the area will copy this behavior, so keep your eyes open.

Gray Whale (PD-Scan, Author: Charles Melville Scammon/Wikimedia Commons)

Once You Have Spotted a Whale…Remember that they are migrating south, which is to your left as you look west out over the ocean from Cabrillo National Monument.  Once you have spotted a whale, you can expect that it will surface again to the south.  After watching an individual gray whale for a while, you will be able to anticipate its unique rhythm of breaths and dives, and where it will surface next.

Whale watching may take some time and patience, but once you’ve spotted these majestic creatures of the sea you’ll have a whale of a tale to tell!  It really is an exciting experience.  Good luck!

P.S. Please come on back and tell us about your Pacific Gray Whale sightings!

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