They come from the dark, cold waters of the Arctic Circle off St. Lawrence Island and from the shallows off the Inuit villages of Gambell and Savoonga, beneath the fog that lay over the water even during the summer feeding months. What has been a glorious parade for whale watchers this winter season under a drought-warmed blue sky started back in October in Alaska, when the ice pack grew thick and the fully fattened mothers slipped away and joined an Aleutian traffic jam of some 60,000 of their kind in great submariner herds forging their way through the narrow Unimak Pass, along the undersea trench and out the Gulf of Alaska headed south.
The gray whales embark on a 12,000-mile migration that is considered the greatest migration that any animal on Earth has ever made. A journey taken every year for what scientists believe is at least three million years.
As the grays go along, they weave their way through the black water archipelago of the British Columbia coastline, never straying far from shore. The waters warm as they continue to drive their 45-foot, 35-ton barnacled bodies south at a pretty steady two to four knots past the coasts of Washington and Oregon and then into California, where the long stretch of green turns to gold and rocks to sand. We find them on their way to give birth most likely in the warm shallow waters of Laguna Ojo de Liebre or San Ignacio or Bahia Magdalena in Baja Mexico.
“The last few years have been really good,” says Jonathan Witt, senior education director of the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. The marine biological public education group – like all Orange County whale watch outfitters – has seen a steady growth in whale and dolphin sightings that has changed the way they and others run whale watching trips.
While the eastern gray whale population has been growing for years, the likelihood of seeing several on a typical whale watching trip in Southern California is now as great as it has ever been. But the surprise has come with the rise of blue whale sightings in summer and fall. The windows of time that used to be shorter and stricter in seeing these species continue to expand. Any day, so it has come to be recently, is a good day to go whale watching.
“Historically, we’ve never seen the volume that we’ve seen the last couple of years,” Witt says. “Every boat trip, people are seeing whales. In the past, we would have to travel out very far, now we barely leave the harbor and see a whale. For some reason they’re coming much closer to shore. It’s been really exciting.”
Witt says the factors that are making things so good are still mostly unknown.
“It could be positive or negative or both. Is it natural biological phenomenon or is it human induced? We have to be open to both ideas. I think that discussion has to be there. They’re all realistic possibilities,” he says.
Regardless of when you go or who you go with, whale watching gets us out of our bubble and allows us to see the same remarkable things marine biologists see.
“The advantage is to see them in their natural environment behaving as they do. Purely observing is a shared experience for the public or scientists,” Witt says. “It’s a progression of understanding.”
Dana Wharf Whale Watching
Dana Point. Multiple trips daily. $45 per person. Half price on Tuesdays. Tickets available online.
Newport Landing Whale Watching
Newport Beach. Multiple trips daily. $26-$36. Tickets available online.
Dana Point. Multiple trips available weekly. $19-$35. Tickets available online.
Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Safari
Dana Point. Multiple trips available weekly. $59 per person. Tickets available online.