Magazine article Sunset

Whale-Watching for Landlubbers

Magazine article Sunset

Whale-Watching for Landlubbers

Article excerpt

"A spout! To the right, about 300 yards out!" Binoculars and spotting scopes swing around, and clifftop enthusiasts scan the swells for the rolling back of a southbound California gray whale.

Two, then three times, the whale surfaces, exhaling its triangular cloud. Each time, more watchers get a fix on the spot. Then broad flukes appear, signaling a long, deep, underwater run, and the watchers resume their vigil.

In northern California, this month is the first peak of the gray whale's annual 3,000-mile migration from the cold waters of the Bering Sea, where it feeds, to the warm lagoons of Baja California, where it calves and mates. As the great sea mammals pass, record numbers of fans are expected to line the high bluffs and cliffs along coastal promontories to watch the parade.

A number of beach parks offer interpretive programs to explain the migration and help visitors learn how to spot whales. Most of these are short (less than an hour), and afterward many participants join coastal vigils with the confirmed aficionados.

Whales aren't always dependably in view. Traveling in groups called pods, 20 or 30 animals sometimes appear in a single hour. But there are also days when you may see only a few whales, and these can be far offshore.

"Watching whales from land can be frustating," sighed one would-be spotter. "They rarely swim as close to shore as you can get to them in a boat. On the other hand, the ground doesn't rock, it isn't crowded, you're warm and dry, and--when the kids get bored--there's plenty of room to run."

January is one of the most dependable times for spotting. On their southbound trip, the whales seem to pass closer to the coastline. On their return run northward, sometime around March, pods are more loosely distributed and the whales are farther offshore. But one way or another, whales travel along the California coast from December into April. Late in the season, you probably won't see as many as now, but you might be lucky enough to spot a mother and her new calf playing and feeding just beyond the surf.

Time your whale-watching outing for early in the morning, when sunlight is at your back and winds are calm (a strong wind blows away the telltale spout, and whales are harder to see amid whitecaps). A spotting scope or binoculars are helpful but not essential. Generally, the first thing you'll spot is the V-shaped spout.

The following northern California coastal parks, listed north to south, offer whale programs; day use is free unless noted. Most sites are also good places to see harbor seals, sea lions, and marine birds.

Redwood National Park, 1111 Second ST., Crescent City 95531; (707) 464-6101. One of the best lookouts in this park is at the end of 3-mile-long Endert's Beach Road, which leads off U.S. Highway 101 a mile south of Crescent City. Displays at the overlook describe the whales and their migration. A spotting scope is set up in the park's new southern information center, about a mile south of Orick on the coast near Freshwater Lagoon; a ranger is there to answer questions.

Mendocino Coast State Parks, Box 440, Mendocino 95460; (707) 937-5804. Now through March, on most Saturdays and Sundays at 10 A. …

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