The migration of the gray whale is a phenomenon on a par with the mass movement of the wildebeest across Africa's Serengeti and the monarch butterfly's journey from the Eastern U.S. to Mexico. And for those of us living on the North Coast, this practically happens in our front yard. Dawn Goley, director of the Marine Mammal Education and Research Program at Humboldt State University, tells me there are an estimated 19,000 gray whales in the eastern Pacific. Most of these whales move between the fecund waters of the Bering Sea and the warm, protected lagoon waters of Baja California, passing through our area until mid-January and back again from late March through April. We have a ringside seat for their pilgrimage.
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to see many whales along our coast. It is generally no more than a wisp of spray, like smoke rising from the surface of the ocean. As Robin Bisel, who did shore-based whale surveys for HSU, advises, "It is best to slowly scan with your eyes as far as you can." Peripheral vision is pretty critical. Once you spot a "blow," use your binoculars to get a closer view.
Gray whales don't tend to be flamboyant like the more acrobatic humpbacks. Most likely you'll need to be satisfied with seeing a back or a tail. And until you learn to recognize spouts, you might pass right by the puff of spray as you search the horizon. Although there are a number of high headlands and vantage points that offer great places to spot whales (Klamath Overlook at Requa, Trinidad Head, perched at the end of Table Bluff), my personal favorite is Wedding Rock at Patrick's Point. On days when the ocean is flat, the view from Wedding Rock is unsurpassed, and if there are whales migrating you are going to see them.
It was with that in mind that I talked a friend into heading for Patrick's Point following a long spate of rain. The forecast called for clear skies but we woke in Arcata to a blanket of fog. Undaunted and ever optimistic (but with a good walk as our backup plan), I packed a thermos of hot tea, binoculars and enough layers to stay warm. However, the visibility was miserable and even after a couple of hours of wandering the trails of Patrick's Point desperately hoping for improvement, whales would have had to shoot fireworks from their blowholes for us to have seen them.
I cajoled my daughter, Chisa, her friends and my wife, Amy, to try whale spotting at Trinidad Head. By the time we got there, the wind was strong enough to create whitecaps across the ocean. This made our spotting prospects less promising. From our vantage point on the northeast side of the head, interest was waning after 20 unproductive minutes. The only blowing anyone had spotted, Chisa observed, was the blowhole on the west side of Pewetole Island.
"I'll pay five dollars to the first person who spots a blow," I offered. That worked for a few more minutes. The $7.50 offer about 10 minutes later had no effect.
"All right. We can move on," I reluctantly suggested. No one protested as I had hoped they would.
We moved around to the southwest side of the head and set for while on a bench enjoying the warmth of the sun and the view. And then I saw a blow maybe a half a mile offshore. The "oh sure" response to my announcement dripped with skepticism. It wasn't until my daughter's friend spotted a second one that everyone re-focused. Blows started erupting like popcorn, with a back here and even a tail or two as we watched a pod of at least half a dozen gray whales slowly cross before us.
As we headed home, I remembered Bisel's comment about the importance of patience. "Sometimes," he told me, "I would have been scanning the ocean for two hours and not seen a thing until the last 20 minutes."
Even though the migration offers the best time to see a whale, you can have a whale encounter any time of the year. Goley noted that there are permanent resident gray whales (known as the Pacific Coast feeding group) that "forgo their full northern migration to the Bering Sea feeding grounds and forage during the summer months from Southeast Alaska south to Northern California." Humpbacks and massive blue whales can be seen during the late summer and into the fall. I was lucky enough one Labor Day to witness several Humpbacks spyhopping — poking their heads up for a look above water — off the beach near Freshwater Lagoon. Bisel told me about a time he saw a pod of orcas about two miles west of the mouth of the Klamath River and a group of gray whales avoiding them by moving past close to shore. You just never know.
There are also some local charter services that offer the opportunity to whale watch by boat or, for the particularly intrepid, kayak.
Turn off the computer. Tear yourself away from watching cute animal clips on YouTube. Put on an extra layer and get out to view this incredible journey happening right now.