A whale of a view

March 21, 2012

It’s been a great season to view California gray whales off the Northern California coast this year. There have been a number of unusual sightings in the San Francisco Bay.

Two weeks ago a cow-calf pair was spotted in the bay, setting off warnings to boaters about veering too close. And earlier this week bike riders in Sausalito chanced upon one, as well as a Tiburon man who photographed a 30-footer as it swum past his house.

Whale experts say the 35-ton giants have been making detours into bays more frequently in recent years, where they take a respite from turbid ocean waters. Beginning in March, whales begin their journey from breeding grounds in the warm waters of Baja California back to nutrient-rich feeding grounds off the Alaskan coast.

The first to go tend to be males, juveniles, and pregnant females. In April, mothers and their newborn calves make the same northward journey. You’re likely to see these mother-calf pairs because they hug the coast a bit more, where they’re safer from orcas and great white sharks.

So pack up your sun hat and binoculars and get to shore. The top whale watching spot in the region is at the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Geography makes Point Reyes the perfect viewing spot for whales. The cape juts out far into the Pacific, so that the whales pass closer to land here than at other coastal vantage points.

At the very apex of the Point Reyes cape is the best place to look for the whales: the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Not for the faint of heart, the lighthouse is accessible only after walking down (and back up) more than 300 stairs!

No luck at the lighthouse? Take a 10 minute drive to Chimney Rock. Follow a two-mile partial loop trail from the parking lot to an outcrop with three-sided views of the ocean. Added bonus: the wildflowers are superb here as well.

Beware! The bluffs and lighthouse areas can get extremely windy, so dress the part. And do some research before trekking all the way out there.  Even on a clear day, a thick bank of fog can roll in quickly and obscure visibility. The Bear Valley Visitor Center will give you information about the weather conditions.

The lighthouse stairs are open Monday-Thursday from 10 am to 4:30pm. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, whales can still be spotted from a vantage point above the lighthouse trail or from Chimney Rock. The road to the lighthouse is closed during weekends during peak whale-watching season from January to April, and a shuttle must be taken from the Drakes Beach parking lot. For more information call the Bear Valley Visitor Center at 415-464-5100.

About the Author

Rachel Gulbraa is a Bay Nature editorial intern.