Admired by California’s conquistadores, pursued by whaleboats launched from 19th century California coastal whaling stations, now moderately protected by various laws and conventions, gray whales can be seen from land and sea as they migrate from their winter home in the lagoons of Mexico’s Baja California, past Los Angeles, toward their summer feeding grounds in and around the Gulf of Alaska.
This is the time to whale watch!
Transcending national and cultural differences, whales have been the subject of legends, art and political intrigue. Roman mosaics that depict whales wreaking havoc on the seas complement ancient Chinese stories of a whale butting against the moon, causing it to float under the bottom of the sea. Africa has its tales of kings taught humility by whales. A whale is the centerpiece of the Christian, Islamic and Jewish versions of Jonah’s story. Not to be left out, even landlocked countries such as Switzerland and Mongolia politic about whales through their membership in the International Whaling Commission.
There is a unique thrill that comes from seeing these 30 – 40 ton (27,200 – 36,300 kg) leviathans. Herman Melville’s description of a pod of whales sighted by Ishmael is classic:
Seen from the Pequod’s deck, then, as she would rise on a high hill of the sea, this host of vapoury spouts, individually curling up into the air, and beheld through a blending atmosphere of bluish haze, showed like the thousand cheerful chimneys of some dense metropolis, descried of a balmy autumnal morning, by some horseman on a height. (Moby-Dick, chapter 87 – The Grand Armada)
Whale watchers see and hear a circus of performances. Whales slapping water with their tails; barnacle covered 50 feet (15.3 m) long whales standing vertically with their head and eyes out of the water, seemingly mugging to have their picture taken; and deep dives accentuated by interminable waits followed by a sudden break in the water as 40 tons of whale leap into the air. You may not see all of these acts but given the size of the current migration, your chances are pretty good.
The northward migration began in December and will continue into March and perhaps April. January was a record month for local whale sightings. Since then there has been no decrease in sightings. It’s a perfect time to experience the thrill of whale watching. You can do this from sea or land.
Many southern California beach cities have commercial whale watching boats that offer cruises lasting from 2 hours to all day. Oxnard, Redondo Beach, San Pedro, Long Beach and San Diego are all well-known departure points.
When considering which cruise service to use, ask if their boats are Coast Guard certified, how long the trip will last, whether food and water are available on board and whether there are places to sit. You might also ask how long they have been in business and what systems they use for finding whales.
You may experience substantial temperature changes so wear layered clothing. Even if it’s cloudy, put on sunscreen. Bring sunglasses. Boat decks often get slippery; flat, rubber-soled shoes are best. A light waterproof jacket with a hood may be helpful. Binoculars can be useful. And, of course, bring a camera.
While boats will get you closest to the whales you can also have a good whale watching experience from shore. Binoculars will enhance the experience.
Malibu’s Point Dume, at the northern tip of Santa Monica Bay, not only offers one of southern California’s premier land-based whale watching sites but also provides a spectacular view of the entire Los Angeles Basin. Located in the Point Dume Nature Preserve, very limited (in terms of space and time) parking is available on Cliffside Drive near the intersection of Birdview Avenue. Weekday visits greatly enhance your chances of finding a parking spot.
The trail to the Point Dume over-look starts at the parking lot. It’s a short walk – perhaps a quarter of a mile. There are no facilities.
From Point Dume you can, in addition to whales, see Palos Verdes Peninsula at the southern end of Santa Monica Bay. That is where this region’s other premier land based whale-watching site is located. The Point Vicente Interpretative Center is located on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean at 31501 Palos Verdes Drive West, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275.
In addition to offering outstanding views of migrating whales from its cliff hugging trails the Center exhibits educational information about whales in an interesting and interactive format. Outside, the Center displays one of only 17 shore whaling boats still existing in the United States.
The Center’s trained volunteers will answer questions. Before going there for whale watching it may be prudent to call (310-377-5370) to check on visibility. On occasion fog will substantially impair your ability to see. Food is not available at the Center. However, there are picnic tables and parking is plentiful.
After you have watched the migrating whales and explored Point Vicente’s trails you may wish to explore other parts of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. I will offer some recommendations at a later time. Until then, if anyone would like a few suggestions, please send me an email.
Happy whale watching!
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.