Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 5, 2018

Thar She Blows! Watching the Big Mammals Swim Past

It’s whale hunting season here in Southern California. No, we’re not sharpening our harpoons and boarding three-masters to sail the briny deep in search of Leviathan. A more accurate phrase is that it’s “whale watching” season.

Each year, nearly all of the nearly 20,000 Gray Whales in the eastern Pacific migrate from the Bering Sea southward to lagoons on the coast of Baja California and the Gulf of California in Mexico, a one-way voyage of 5,000 – 6,800 miles. They leave beginning in October, and as they travel, they can be seen from a variety of spots along the west coast of the U.S. They typically reach us, just south of Los Angeles, beginning about Christmas. A small number of them pass through the Catalina Strait (red line, below) between the Palos Verdes Peninsula (red star) and Santa Catalina Island.

Whale route map Google

I live on the Peninsula, and most of our regular walks have a view out toward Catalina. That means we have an excellent place to watch for whales as they swim past us, either southbound from late December to mid-February, or on the return trip north from then until April or May. Note that when I say we “see a whale,” most commonly we see only a spout of water, a mile or more, sometimes much more, out across the surface. If the whale’s close enough, we might catch a glimpse of its back as it arcs upward to breathe. Less often, one can catch a glimpse of the tail ─ flukes ─ as it powers itself down and forward, lungs full of air. They’re not out there flipping and jumping around; they are seriously, intensely motoring along, swimming nonstop, night and day, covering about 75 miles every day, from the Bering Sea to Mexico.

So far this year, here’s my best photo of the whales we’ve spotted.

Look all you like, you won’t see a spout. We have seen zero whales so far. Great, you say, here I’ve read 300 words of a blog post that has nothing to show me. Instead, though, I’m going to introduce you to a couple of ways you can improve your odds of seeing a whale if you visit during migration season, rather than taking your chances on an evening walk with The Counselor and me.

The Whale Watching Experts

The serious whale watchers, volunteers with the American Cetacean Society (ACS), staff a whale watching station at Point Vicente (map, red star), the westernmost point of the Peninsula, in just about the center of the map above. From December 1 to late May, they’re there during daylight hours, looking through fiercely serious binoculars, counting whales. The location is officially the Point Vicente Interpretive Center (PVIC) details below. It’s a spectacular vantage from which to view the ocean. Here I am, earlier today, getting a photo of it from the conning tower of the Under Western Skies Cetacean Observation Vehicle.

Pt Vicente M Vincent 0761 (640x480)

Here’s what the point looks like, at the edge of the continent.

Pt Vicente Brad Nixon 9184 (640x417)

The buildings on the right are the PVIC , and there’s a broad patio where the volunteers sit. They maintain a running count of whales, that looks like this:

Point Vicente Brad Nixon 1197 (640x519)

If there’s a whale passing by, they’ll see it, and let all the spectators know, usually well before it’s within view of the unaided eye. While you’re there, you can enjoy the view of the Point Vicente Lighthouse, with Catalina Island beyond.

Pt Vicente lighthouse Brad Nixon 1200 (640x480)

You can follow this year’s running count of whale sightings (452 as I write) and the daily counts (20 today!) at the ACS website, at this link. Obviously, you want to hang out with the ACS cats to see whales, not me. As their chart, below, shows, the whale count is below average, running a little late this year, so I’m not entirely to blame for being so far without a sighting.

Whale sighting Chart ACS

Waterborne

Another option is to board a whale watching boat that will take you out into the Strait and, if there are whales to be found, take you to them.

Voyager Brad Nixon 7161 (640x480)

The tour operators keep tabs on passing whales, and they have a good success rate. You’ll be close enough to actually see a whale as it surfaces to breathe. I’ve done it, including one never-to-be-forgotten time when there were Blue Whales in the area, which I wrote about here. I’ve sailed from King Harbor in Redondo Beach, a little north of the Peninsula, and also from San Pedro at the Port of LA, just to the south. If you’re visiting other western ports during the season, inquire, because there may be a whale watching excursion available there, too.

For this Midwestern-born landlubber, merely being out on the ocean is still a marvel. Here’s the view back at the Peninsula, sailing out of San Pedro.

PV Ocean View Brad Nixon 1277 (640x419)

No, even though I was out there, within a few hundred yards of more than one whale (the boats maintain a legally imposed distance), I do not have a photo. I had a choice: Look with my eyes at something I might never see again, or use one of the opportunities to try to take a photo that might or might not be worth anything. As I often repeat, sometimes it’s preferable to have that visual memory to carry with you as long as memory lasts. A giant mammal, swimming at 5 miles per hour, day and night, making a round trip of thousands and thousands of miles! I hope you see one … or more.

Have you seen a whale? A spout? Where? Leave a comment.

Some Logistics

Please see the map for the general location of King Harbor and the Port of Los Angeles. Addresses for the tour operators are at the website links above. The Point Vincente Interpretive Center is at 31501 Palos Verdes Drive West, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275. Further information at the website link above.

© Brad Nixon 2018. One photo © Marcy Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. Chart courtesy of the Los Angeles branch of the American Cetacean Society. Map © Google.

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Responses

  1. Whale watching is an admirably worthwhile pursuit. On the south coast of South Africa (Cape Town to Hermanus, especially), Southern Right and Humpback whales come to breed in winter. So you don’t see them just passing through – they come to stay for a few months, and it’s easy to observe their antics (breaching, spyhopping, etc) from the shore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Nick. That’d be a tremendous experience.

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      • July to October is when to see them. In order to make the experience less miserable (Winter in Cape Town is not a huge amount of fun), September is probably your target month.

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  2. We’ll see if there’s a way for the Cetacean Society to pass the word to the single Gray Whales passing by that there’s a big whale party over in Capetown. A lot of them have been looking for the Right Whale.

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  3. Have yet to go on one of those whale watching boat tours, but I have caught the specks of whale tails and backs while exploring the Northern California, San Francisco coastline. I love that you opted to be in the experience rather than worrying about taking photos of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for letting us know you’ve seen the whales from farther north. An encouragement to future travelers to keep it in mind when heading for the coast.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That was a very thorough report! Have you ever submitted an article to National Geographic or other similar periodical? If not, you should consider it. 😀

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    • Thank you. Nat Geo needs SCIENCE. I’m just a fan.

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  5. I agree with your affirmation of visual as well as photographic memory. Have you read Annie Dillard’s description of the two ways of seeing in Pilgrim At Tinker Creek? It includes this wonderful and true paragraph:

    “The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.”

    I’ve never seen Gray whales, but I was able to see Orcas galore when we were cruising Glacier Bay. The image of the Orca that came over to visit when we were in the dingy is plenty vivid, believe me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with Ms. Dillard. If I’m not careful, I don’t remember being somewhere, I remember taking photographs of a place, and my memory is entirely composed of pictures … and not much else. I love taking photos, so I try to make a conscious effort to strike a balance. Seeing those big, fast Orcas from a small craft would be “vivid,” to say the least! I saw some in Resurrection Bay, but from a larger boat on a day trip out of Seward. Unforgettable. Thanks for contributing.

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  6. Interesting posting about whales. I saw several types of Whales on a Trip to Quebec a few years ago. We saw Wright Whales, A Beluga and a few other types.

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    • Ah, that would be a treat to see one of those remarkable Beluga whales. A number of people have commented that they’ve seen Right Whales, but I haven’t, to my knowledge. I have to check to see if they live here in the eastern Pacific. Thanks for the comment.

      Like


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