Every year starting in October, the California gray whale embarks on its 10,000-mile roundtrip journey from the Bering Sea down to the lagoons of Baja. The pregnant females — the same ones who made the trip during last year’s migration to breed in the lagoons — usually leave first, followed by the males, young adults and juveniles. Covering roughly 85-100 miles a day, most of the entire population will reach their destination by mid-January.
To witness the whales’ path through San Diego’s coastal waters, Birch Aquarium, along with several other companies around San Diego — including some located in Point Loma — takes to the high seas to give locals and tourists a glimpse of nature’s longest mammal migration. On a recent whale-watching cruise (Birch offers twice-daily excursions for which it teams up with Flagship cruises), the air was brisk and the seas choppy, but that didn’t stop a couple of whales from awing the crowd with their blows and flukes.
Soon after the ship left San Diego Bay, the onboard naturalist narrating the excursion announced a blow — the visible spray of vapor that appears after the whales exhale — had been spotted nearby. The blow, the naturalist explained, is the most common way of finding gray whales in the open water (contrary to some passengers’ belief that the crew uses expensive and fancy equipment to locate the massive cetaceans). When gray whales come up to the surface to breathe, a pool of water is left on top of their head, and as their warm breath hits the cool ocean air, the pool condenses and is expelled above their heads, creating the perfect indicator for their location.
Following the “footprint” — the path of calm, glassy water that trails the whales, indicating the direction in which they are swimming — our ship was able to find the whale and witness its behavior as it surfaced for five or six blows and then dove deep for a three- to five-minute “sounding dive.” A few times, the passengers crowding the deck of the ship were treated to a fluke, as the whale made a dramatic display of its tail before beginning its deep descent.
Gray whales, while once hunted almost to extinction, have made an impressive comeback, with numbers now keeping them safely off the endangered species list. Growing to about 45 feet long and weighing about 33 tons, the whales live a consistent schedule of migrating to Baja — with most preferring one of three lagoons: Scammon’s, San Ignacio or Magdalena — where they rest, breed and give birth, after which they make the return journey with their new calves back up to the Arctic. When they return up north, they spend about five months feeding constantly on bottom-dwelling amphipods as they struggle to put on the six to 12 inches of blubber needed for the next migration (their prime source of food isn’t found in abundance in other parts of the Pacific, so they feed very little during the migration period). Then the process starts all over again.
In all, our cruise viewed a few gray whales (the whales usually travel alone, so seeing groups of them together is unexpected, though it occurs sporadically), along with sea lions and several pods of common dolphins. Though passengers aren’t guaranteed a whale sighting, the abundant marine life in the waters off San Diego is a treat in itself. At one point as the ship reentered the bay, a group of about 10 dolphins playfully followed the ship, jumping and weaving among each other as if escorting us back home.
Though the temperature called for heavy layers and the wind wreak-ed havoc on some passengers whose bellies didn’t take kindly to the high surf, the cruise offered a chance to glimpse nature in all its glory. After all, the gray whales didn’t care about San Diego’s weather woes. They continued, slow and steady and stopping briefly to allow the humans to gawk at them, on their way to their Mexican vacation.
Whale-watching options in San Diego:
• Birch Aquarium with Harbor Excursions: departing at 9:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., 1050 North Harbor Drive, through April 14, (619) 234-4111, www.sdhe.com, $37 weekdays and $42 weekends (discounts for children, seniors and military)
• Hornblower Cruises: departs 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., 1066 North Harbor Drive, through mid-April, (619) 686-8715, www.hornblower.com, $37 weekdays and $42 weekends for adults (discounts for children, seniors and military)
• Seaforth Sportfishing with San Diego Whale Watch: 10 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, December through April, (619) 224-3383, www.seaforthlanding.com, $44 adults (discounts for children, seniors and military)
• H&M Landing: Daily departures at 10 a.m. from mid-December through March; 6-hour cruises to Coronado Islands departing at 10 a.m., (619) 222-1144, www.hmlanding.com, $37 weekday cruises, $45 weekend cruises ($60 six-hour cruise)
• Hike Bike Kayak Sports: departs 10:30 a.m from December through March, 2246 Avenida de la Playa, (866) 425-2925, www.hikebikekayak.com, single-person kayak $70, tandem kayaks $60 per head
• Birch Aquarium: excursions of four, five or six days following the whales down to their birthing grounds in the lagoons of Baja California, (800) 661-1325, www.andiamo-travel.com, call for pricing
• H&M Landing: trips of nine or 11 days, (619) 226-1729 or (619) 226-8224, cost varies
• A baby gray whale weighs 2,000 pounds at birth
• Gray whales’ gestation period lasts 12 months, so some of the pregnant individuals being spotted off San Diego’s coast this season could possibly be the same ones who were spotted last year heading to Baja to breed
• A mother’s milk contains 50 percent milk fat
• A gray whale can eat up to 2,400 pounds of food a day
• Gray whales are estimated to live up to 70 years
• Gray whales communicate with a series of clicks and grunts
• A gray whale’s flukes can measure 10-12 feet across
— Courtesy of Birch Aquarium