Whales and Dolphins of the California Coast

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Gray Whales: Up Close

Grey Whale at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Johnida Dockens/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gray whales are one of the most commonly-seen whales along the California coast. Their name is taken from the gray patches and white mottling on their dark skin. An adult Pacific Gray Whale can be 45 feet long and weigh up to 33 tons. To help you visualize, that's a little longer than an average school bus and as heavy as a half dozen fully-grown African elephants.

Gray whales migrate 10,000 miles round trip every year, traveling between their winter calving lagoons in Mexico and summer feeding grounds in the Arctic. It's the longest migration of any animal on earth. The 2011 population of California gray whales was thought to number around 28,000, and they all pass the coast as they migrate.

When seen off the California coast, they aren't stopping to eat or socialize, they're on their equivalent of a road trip, not even stopping to sleep.

When to See Gray Whales in California

Gray whales start swimming south from Alaska in October, generally passing the coast off San Diego from December through January and again in February and March when they return to their feeding grounds. They're closest to the shore when traveling south, in particular between Monterey and San Diego.

Where to See Gray Whales in California

You can see the gray whales anywhere along the California coast. Whale watching cruises operate from San Diego, Dana Point, Long Beach, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Half Moon Bay and San Francisco.

You can also see them from land, especially from any part of the coastline that juts into the sea, where they typically come closest to land. Some good spots include Point Reyes, the Monterey Peninsula and Point Dume north of Los Angeles.

Use the California whale watching guide to get more information about how to pick the best whale watching cruises and how to enjoy them to the fullest.

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Gray Whales: What You'll See

Gray Whale Fluke
adwalsh / Getty Images

Because the gray whales are migrating and don't stop to eat on the way, you'll most often see them as they break the surface to grab a breath of air - or their flukes above the surface when they begin a deep dive.

Grey whales typically swim in a cycle. They take 3 to 5 breaths (which you will see as "blows" or sprays of water), 30 seconds apart, followed by a 3- to 6-minute dive, and they often show their tail flukes just before they dive. If they're swimming just below the surface and you're high enough to see the water's surface, they may leave a "trail" of circular calm spots on the surface as they pass, making them easier to track.

Your best bet for seeing a gray whale is to scan the ocean's surface, looking for a vertical spray of water. If you know which direction the whales are migrating (which you can find on the gray whales close up page) you'll have an advantage in predicting its next location. Expect it to spout again further along the direction it's moving. They swim about 5 miles per hour or the speed of a child on a bicycle. Keep binoculars handy, and once you get good at figuring out where they will be, you may be able to get a closer look.

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Blue Whales: Up Close

Blue Whale Model at the Aquarium of the Pacific
Clinton Steeds/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Blue whales are possibly the largest animal that ever lived on the earth. Blue-gray in color, long and slender, they can grow up to 100 feet long and weigh more than 300,000 pounds. 

These ocean giants feed almost exclusively on small, shrimp-like creatures called krill.

When to See Blue Whales in California

Blue whales swim and feed off the California coast from mid-June through October when krill is abundant. At that time, thousands of them can be found off the California coast.

Where to See Blue Whales in California

Blue whales feed off the California coast between Bodega Bay and San Diego. Whale-watching cruises are available from most of the larger coastal towns including Monterey.

Because they feed away from the shore, they're not easy to spot from land.

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Blue Whales: What You'll See

Blue whale breathing
Joe Fox / Getty Images

Blue whales feed on small, shrimp-like creatures called krill and you may see them near the surface, slurping them up - or you might see just a spout like this one. You can see about three-quarters of the length of their back when they surface. They're not diving deeply, and you can sometimes see about three-quarters of the length of their back when they surface - and their beautiful tail flukes at the end.

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Fin Whales: Up Close

Fin Whale in the Ocean
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Fin whales are second only to the blue whale in size and weight, growing up to 70 feet long and weighing 70 tons. They're long and sleek, with a V-shaped head which is flat on top. A few thousand of them can be found along the California coast.

If stood on end, an adult fin whale would be as tall as a seven-story building, weighing as much as a fully loaded military tank. They can swim up to 14 miles per hour and can hold their breath up to 45 minutes between breaches, making them a very rare whale-watching sight.

Fin whales eat mostly small shrimp-like creatures called krill and schooling fish, and they travel in groups (called pods) of 2 to 10 individuals.

When to See Fin Whales in California

Fin whales are usually sighted in the winter.

Where to See Fin Whales in California

You can see fin whales on whale-watching trips from Orange County, San Diego, Long Beach, the Channel Islands near Ventura and Santa Barbara, Morro Bay, Monterey Bay and occasionally as far north as San Francisco.

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Fin Whales: What You'll See

Fin Whale, Balaenoptera physalus
Barrett & MacKay / Getty Images

Fin whales are big, they move fast, and they can stay submerged for a long time. If you're lucky, you'll get close enough to see their distinctive back fin as they swim. However, they seldom show their tail flukes when they dive.

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Risso's Dolphin

Risso's dolphins
Justin Hart Marine Life Photography and Art / Getty Images

Risso's dolphins are snub-nosed, gray animals with white scars. Their population off the California coast is estimated to be between 13,000 and 30,000.

Risso's Dolphins in California

They are most often found offshore but are also seen with some regularity in Monterey Bay. However, their range extends along the entire California coast.

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Pacific White Sided Dolphin

A Pacific White-Sided Dolphin on the surface
Jim Borrowman / Getty Images

These dolphins with a short, rounded, thick beak, black backs, and white bellies are playful, love to ride the bow waves of boats, and they're acrobatic jumpers. They eat squid and small schooling fish and live in groups (pods) that may include thousands of individuals.

Pacific White Sided Dolphins in California

You'll find these dolphins along the entire California coast, a small part of their range from the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of California. In winter, they're more commonly found toward the southern end of their range.

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Bottlenose Dolphin

Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops Gilli)
Dave Fleetham / Getty Images

Bottlenose dolphins are charming performers, often seen in films and television shows, including the 1964 television show "Flipper." They have short, stubby beaks and range in color from light to dark gray. They eat a wide variety of food. About 3,000 of them live off the California coast.

Bottlenose Dolphins in California

Bottlenose dolphins are most commonly seen along the California coast between San Francisco and San Diego. You can also see them in captivity at Sea World in San Diego.

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Common Dolphin

Dolphin riding wake
Greg Boreham (TrekLightly) / Getty Images

The distinctively-marked common dolphin has a dark gray-to-black back with white hourglass markings on their sides. They feed at night on squid and small schooling fish.

Common Dolphins in California

You'll see common dolphins along the entire California coast, year-round, most often where surface water temperature is 50 to 70°C (10 to 20°C), offshore but in water shallower than 600 feet (180 meters).

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When to Whale Watch in California: Whale Watching Calendar

California Whale Watching Calendar
©Betsy Malloy Photography.

You go whale watching almost anywhere along the California coast. Use an online guide to find out about tour companies, seasons, and where to watch from land in the most-visited locations.

The graphic above shows the times of year that whales are usually seen along the California coast. However, they may not be found everywhere along the coast at those times.

Even more important is that the whales are free to go wherever they like, paying no attention to the calendars we humans create. Varying ocean currents, an "El Nino" or "La Nina" year with atypical water temperatures and location and availability of food can bring them into areas at times other than the typical ones shown above.

October through February: Grey whales southbound from Alaska to Mexico and can be seen along the entire coast, swimming offshore.

February through April: Grey whales are northbound from Mexico to Alaska. Mothers with calves travel last, staying closer to the shore and moving slowly, making this one of the best times to see them.

June through October: Blue whales and humpback whales can be seen along the Big Sur coast, and around the Channel Islands.

April to early November: Humpback whales along the central California coast.

July through October: Minke whales, mostly in southern California

April through June: Orcas from Southern California to Santa Cruz

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