Whale Watch at Bodega Head
The yearly migration of the Pacific Gray Whales is a much-anticipated and awe-inspiring sight. And one of the best places in the world to whale watch is at Bodega Head on the Sonoma Coast. Not only is it a prime vantage point because of the way Bodega Head juts out into the ocean, but the other great thing is that there are volunteers out there on weekends from January through April (weather permitting) ready to help you spot these incredible animals and to answer your questions. (Note: Sonoma Coast Whale Watch is not at the Head during the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Festival weekend or Easter weekend.)
Norma Jellison, who is part of the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods Organization and one of the volunteers at Bodega Head, has contributed the following article:
Whale Watching at Bodega Head - What to Look for and When:
January: The Sonoma Coast Whale Watch at Bodega Head starts in January, when the Gray whales are headed south from their feeding grounds in the frigid waters by Alaska, to the subtropical waters of the lagoons and bays of Baja California, where they go to mate and nurse their young.
The whales are typically farther out in the ocean on the southbound trip than on the northbound leg. Bring your binoculars. First, look for the blow - a bushy, heart shaped affair when viewed close up, as the whale surfaces to breathe. Then, we can pinpoint them in our binoculars to catch a glimpse of their back and maybe a tail, as they surface and dive.
February: Along about the middle of February, we begin to see whales going both south and north! This is one phenomenon we local Whale Watchers can attest to, as we have our notes over the past 18 years. (We do not otherwise keep records per se as we are only at the Head on weekends for a few hours. Our role is more education and assisting the public in spotting a whale.)
The northbound whales in February are predominantly the newly pregnant females. Getting pregnant on the southbound migration or in the mating/calving lagoons in Baja, they are now hightailing it to Alaska, to be there as soon as the ice begins to break up. They will now be feeding for two, after living off their blubber stores for the southbound migration and during their stay in Baja. Gray whales mostly do not feed during migration, so they’re hungry and hurrying to get home.
The southbound whales we see in February are juveniles. They tend to lag behind in the migration, and often do not go all the way to Baja, as they are not yet sexually mature. Juveniles have been known to turn around and head north as they encounter the northbound migration.
February is a fun month on the Head, as we try to figure out what direction the whales we are seeing are going, and if we can tell if they are adults or juveniles by their size.
Late February and March: The northbound migration picks up and larger numbers of Grays pass by each weekend, swimming steadily north focused on FOOD! Not eating for months while swimming, mating, and breaching and otherwise “playing” around in Baja takes its toll on their girth. Gray whales lose up to 30 percent of their body weight during the roundtrip migration.
On the northbound migration, the whales tend to be even closer in to shore, allowing us better sightings than on the southbound migration. Although the Gray whale does not really travel in pods as Orcas and other marine mammals do, we often will see groupings of whales on the northbound trip. Individuals surface and blow and dive and surface again, putting on quite a show, and eliciting many oohs and ahhs and even rounds of applause.
April: In April we begin to see the cow/calf pairs headed north. The cow/calf pairs are the last to head north, as the calves have been nursing in the lagoons of Baja, gaining weight and strength. Calves must build up enough stamina and swimming ability to take a first journey north, just a few months after birth. Mother Gray whale and calf hug the coast quite closely on their northbound trip. The calf needs to rest often, and the cow is still nursing the calf. And, by keeping the calf between her and the coastline, the mother whale helps protect the calf from the eco-location finding capabilities of their only serious predator, the Orca.
The most amazing sightings from the Head are the cow/calf pairs. They will often stop on the jetty side of the Head to rest and nurse and/or come slowly past the tip of the Head to Horseshoe Cove at a leisurely pace. What a delight to see the cow/calf pairs so close up you can see their barnacles. It is the ever present barnacles that give the Gray whale its mottled look. They swim so slowly (3-5mph) that the water velocity cannot knock off the barnacles, which are along for the ride feeding in the water column as the whale dives.
There is much more I could tell you about our beloved Pacific Gray whales. Or, you could come up to Bodega Head some weekend, see our display, talk to the docents about the Gray whale migration and, if you are patient and lucky, see a whale spout or two!
Some interesting facts about the Pacific Gray Whale:
• An adult Gray whale averages 45 feet in length, although females are larger than males and can be 55’. They weigh on average 45 tons.
• Female Gray whales give birth to one calf, which weighs in at 1500 to 2000 pounds and is about 15 feet long. The gestation period is about 13 months.
• This season, the LA American Cetacean Society, which has been keeping records of the Pacific Gray Whale migration for 10 years, spotted 48 cow/calf pairs headed south. That’s the second highest southbound cow/calf count in their data base - quite a large number to be born in the ocean on the way south, rather than at the warmer, protected lagoons of Baja.