When I talk with kids about Little Gray’s Great Migration, they’re often eager to go whale watching themselves right away. But there are parts of the year when you would have very little chance of spotting an Eastern Pacific gray whale in California, Oregon, or Washington. That’s because of their life cycle:
- Gray whales spend most of the summer (~June through ~September) in the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea. In the summer, the combination of lots of sunshine and melting ice support tons of phytoplankton that grows, dies, and then feeds the whales #1 food: amphipods. Gray whales will eat about 65,000 pounds of amphipods during the summer.
- Gray whales spend a few weeks (sometimes longer, especially new mothers and calves) in the lagoons of Baja, Mexico starting in December through February (longer for new mothers and calves). These warm, protected waters are the breeding and birthing grounds for the whales.
But when gray whales aren’t up in Alaska or down in Mexico, they are traveling between these two places –- a whopping 5,000+ miles each way –- and there are opportunities to see them on both their north and southbound migrations all along the west coast. (NOTE: When gray whales are heading northbound they tend to be much closer to shore and easier to spot.)
This map will help you get a sense of timing for gray whale watching where you live:
To be even more precise in timing, I recommend looking at local information about when and where people are documenting passing gray whales (note that every year is a little different). For example:
- Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego is a well-known spot for viewing southbound gray whales (though not northbound) from mid-December through March.
- In Los Angeles, southbound gray whales pass starting in mid- to late-December, with the peak of northbound gray whales generally in early to mid-March. Check out the Los Angeles Chapter of the America Cetacean Society’s annual census.
- The peak of gray whales passing Point Reyes going southbound starts in December and peaks in mid-January. There’s another surge of northbound whales in mid- to late-March. However, Mother’s Day is known by park rangers at Point Reyes as a great time to see lots of mothers and calves, as they travel north much later than the rest of the grays.
- Up in Oregon, whale watchers see grays head south in early December and return north in late March to early April.
The most helpful book I’ve found for gray whale watching is The Oceanic Society Field Guide to the Gray Whale. It lists all the best viewing spots along the entire west coast.