Where to Watch Gray Whales in North America


Gray whales are one of the most amazing whales that you can ever hope to see. There are many places to see gray whale off the coast in North America.

Gray whales migrate from the Chuchki and Bering Seas, down the coast into Mexico to breed. They then make the journey again, allowing whale-watchers to see them almost anywhere on the West Coast.

There is something special about seeing a gray whale. If you want to know where to see them then this article will give you the best places to see them from shore or by boat.

During a Whale Watching expedition in San Ignacio Lagoon, Southern baja California, Mexico, an attractive, young woman, is extending herself from a boat, trying to kiss a juvenile gray whale, who is emerging from the surface of the water, in order to be kissed by her.

What Is A Gray Whale?

The gray whale, also known as the gray back whale is a species of baleen whale that travels great distances to and from its breeding grounds.

Their long migration route involves swimming 10,000 miles from its feeding grounds in Chuchki and the Bering sea in Alaska all the way to its winter birthing grounds in Baja, California Sur, Mexico.

Gray whale

The whole trip approximately takes four months where they swim night and day, even when they are sleeping. They can swim alone or in pods.

Gray whales are known as one of the whales that travels the longest migration route in the world.

Gray whales are a protected species. The Mexican government took special action by declaring four lagoons in Baja, Mexico, as a refuge for these gentle giants. No boats in the area are allowed to enter without the express permission of the government.

These measures were necessary because, in the past, lounging in these shallow waters after a long trip from the Arctic made the Gray whales a very easy target for commercial whalers.

Gray whale

Apart from humpback whales, gray whales count as one of the most-watched aquatic mammals in the world. This is not because of how they look, but because of their friendliness and natural curiosity.

Gray whales interact with boats and even allow humans to touch them while in a whale watching encounter.

This is very different from the past, where gray whales were hunted for their meat. Gray whales would fight back by becoming aggressive and overturning boats. This earned them the nickname of devil fish.

Gray whales were so widely hunted that they almost became extinct. Fortunately, during the 1940s, world authorities came to an international agreement to declare the gray whale a protected species.

This act allowed the eastern Pacific population of gray whales to recover and eventually was removed from the endangered list.

Gray whale

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the same for the western Pacific population, because statistics have shown that these haven’t recovered their numbers from that time. Today, the Gray whales in the area remain endangered.

How Do You Recognize a Gray Whale?

Gray whales can grow from up to 34 to 45 feet long and can weigh up to 40 tons. Notably, females are usually larger than males. Their skin has a mottled gray appearance characterized by white patches all along its body.

In many instances, the whole body may be covered with scars, barnacles, whale lice, and even clams. This gives them a rough and crusty look, much like an ocean rock.

Gray whale

Despite how they looked, the “friendly” Gray whale enjoys some popularity because of its gentle nature and affinity to humans. This makes them a favorite species for whale watching. Additionally, they are known to be more tactile and often touch each other in an affectionate manner.

Gray whales have two blowholes located right on top of their heads. They can blow water up to ten feet in the air. The rostrum or beak-like part stretches out to six feet from the tip of the snout to the blowholes. The eyes are brown and are about the size of oranges.

Gray whales do not have a dorsal fin. Instead, you might see a hump in its place. After the hump are six to twelve bumps called knuckles, which run the whole length from the back up to the tail.

Gray whales do not have teeth but use baleen plates instead. This comb-like structure, which is located in the upper jaw of the whale, works by opening its mouth to let water in and closing it while pushing water out.

In effect, three hundred baleen plates act as a filter-feeder system wherein water is being expelled out while food is trapped inside the whale’s mouth. This now becomes food for the whale to digest.

Gray whale

The gray whale also has throat grooves that expand when they feed. Moving on behind the throat grooves are its flippers, which are shaped like paddles.

At the end is the tail fluke, with a V-shaped structure that makes up the end of the gray whale’s tail. Its length running across from left to right is about 9 feet wide. The tail fluke propels and steers the whale when it swims.

How Do They Feed?

The way that gray whales feed can indicate that you are close to one and have a good chance of seeing them.

Gray whales feed by going down on to the seafloor and lie on their side while it scrounges along the seabed with its mouth open.

Gray whale

They use their mouth and tongue to catch and sift through whatever it can find on the bottom. Small fish, vegetation, krill, plankton, and other small crustaceans make up their diet.

As they scrape along the bottom, they stir up so much mud and silt that it forms brown colored clouds in the water. If you see patches of brown in the water, it is possible that a gray whale is feeding.

The method of feeding explains how they get scars and other visible abrasions on the skin, as well as the barnacles.

Where are Gray Whales Found?

Gray whales are mainly found in the Pacific Ocean, particularly in the Eastern North Pacific. The population of this great mammal is currently estimated at 26,000.

They have long since been declassified as no longer an endangered species. In the 17th century, however, gray whales once existed in the North Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, they later became extinct in this area due to commercial whale hunting.

These gentle giants generally stay close to the shore when traveling through their migration routes. Gray whales are sometimes easier to spot from shore than they are from boats.

Where to Watch Gray Whales in North America

Feeding Time

May to October
At the time when the ice melts in Chuckchi, Beaufort, and Bering seas in Alaska, gray whales start feeding. This happens near the end of spring and at the beginning of fall.

They eat to produce fat and blubber that can sustain them on their migration route from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to Mexico and back.

Gray whale
Mexico, Baja California Sur, Laguna San Ignacio 13.03.2016: San Ignacio lagoon is a gray whale sanctuary, nursery and breeding ground of the Pacific Gray Whale,

Migration in the Fall

October to February
Pregnant female whales are the first to leave as they need to reach the warm shallow waters of the Baja Peninsula of Mexico in time for the winter months to give birth.

Next to leave are the adult males and females, with the juveniles leaving last. Some of the adult whales and juveniles then turn around and go back north without having reached Mexico.

The Great Migration

Gray whales will then travel along seven thousand miles of coastline approximately two and a half miles away from the shore. They can be seen from the shore as they swim towards the warmer waters of Baja, Mexico.

Gray whale

Birthing Grounds

The whales just arrive in time for the winter month of December, reaching the warm waters off the coast of Baja, Mexico. There they enter the lagoons to breed and mate.

The Return Trip to the Arctic

The return trip happens in waves beginning in January and through to June. The adult males go first, followed by the juveniles.

Next are the newly pregnant females who will be due to give birth by the next migration cycle. Mothers who have birthed calves stay a while longer for their offspring to become stronger, make more blubber, and store enough fat for the long trip back north.

Where Are The Best Places to Watch Gray Whales?

Kodiak Island, Alaska

Late Spring from March to June

These are the best times to see these graceful animals feeding in Kodiak Island, Alaska. This is where they begin and end their great migration to the warm waters of Mexico and back.

Unimak Pass

October to January and April to June

Gray whales swim down from the Bering Sea and down through the Unimak Pass between October and January. Gray whales will swim back the same way between April and June to get back to their feeding grounds.

Barrow

June to August

Gray whales can sometimes be seen from the shore in Point Barrow and Nuvuk.

Westport and the Olympic Coast

gray whale

March to May

Westport is a fantastic place to see gray whales. As many as forty can pass the area every hour in peak season. If you want to see gray whales, then Westport is definitely one of the best places to see them.

Land-based whale watching is common in Westport. Some of the best places to see them are the North Head Lighthouse, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and the Westport Observation Tower.

Oregon

Year-round

For an almost guaranteed sighting of gray whales, visit the Oregon Coast between March and October. Almost every gray whale in the world passes the Oregon Coast between these months, but they can also be seen sometimes between November and February.

gray whale

The gray whales migrate from their feeding grounds in the north to their breeding grounds in the south. Between December to February, they head south to their breeding grounds.

In these months, they are usually further away from the shore, generally about five miles away. They also swim faster than when heading north.

Between March and May is the best time to watch gray whales in Oregon. Heading north, they generally swim slower and are only a couple of miles away from shore.

California

Year-round

As with Oregon, gray whales can be seen migrating twice off the coast of California.

Between December and February, the whales can be seen heading towards Baja, California, to breed. They can be seen about five miles offshore and swim quickly.

gray whale

Between February and April, gray whales can be seen closer to shore when they head north towards their feeding ground. They are generally about two miles off the coast and swim slower, giving a better whale-watching experience.

Although almost all gray whales migrate off the coastline of California, there is a group of gray whales that do not migrate any further south once reaching California. There is a group of about two hundred gray whales, which can be seen during the summer. These whales are known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group.

San Diego

June

San Diego is unique from the gray whales perspective and a whale-watchers perspective. Whereas gray whales usually swim closer to shore when traveling north, in San Diego, the opposite is true.

If you want to see gray whales in San Diego, the best time to see them is in June, where they can be seen about half a mile from shore.

Monterey Bay

December to May

As with most other coastlines on the west coast, Monterey Bay has almost the entire population of gray whales passing it.

Gray whales migrate south between December and February and north from February to May.

Due to the deep waters further out from the coast and the increased attacks that the deep water brings from killer whales, gray whales can often be seen from land in Monterey Bay, with some being seen just two hundred yards from the coast.

Cowichan Bay, Vancouver Island, Canada

From March to April

The Gray whale, along with other species like killer whales, humpback, minke whales can be spotted along the Bay on this island in Canada.

From May to October, there is a group of resident gray whales that can be found. Some of the whales that make up the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, which can also be seen in California, come to the area to feed.

Mexico

From the Middle of January to mid-March

Gray whales can be seen mating and breeding in the following places:

• Sea of Cortez or Gulf of California

• San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja, Mexico

• Bahai Magdalena, Baja, Mexico

• Guerrero Negro, Baja, Mexico

• Ojo de Liebre. Baja, Mexico

Whale watching trips in Mexico takes about a half-day. You can take tours with private companies that offer services where you can ride on small boats for a very close encounter with these majestic creatures.

If you want to find out where to watch blue whales, I have written an article which you can find here.

Conclusion

As much as we enjoy whale watching and appreciating the diversity and enormous wonders of nature, it is important to note that we should be aware of the threats and dangers that these gentle mammals face.

Factors like chemical and physical pollutants caused by man that are being thrown into the sea will cause them harm.

Humans, for the most part, have already successfully averted their extinction by finding ways to complete international treaties by altogether banning commercial whaling.

We now have proof that with a reasonable concern for these giants, man can and will continue to coexist with them in this planet that we all share.

References

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Carwardine, M. (2010). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Carwardine, M. (2017). Mark Carwardine’s guide to whale watching in North America : USA, Canada, Mexico, where to go, what to see. London: Bloomsbury.

Hadoram Shirihai, Jarrett, B., Graeme Cresswell and Kirwan, G.M. (2019). Whales, dolphins and seals : a field guide to the marine mammals of the world. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife.

Martin, T. (1990). The illustrated encyclopedia of whales and dolphins. Hodder.

Nowak, R.M. and Walker, E.P. (1991). Walker’s mammals of the world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B.G. and J  G  M Thewissen (2002). Encyclopedia of marine mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Richard John Harrison and Bryden, M.M. (1990). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Merehurst.

Williams, H. (1988). Whale nation. London: Cape.

Wilson, D.E. (1999). The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Inst. Press.

May, J. (1990). The Greenpeace book of dolphins. London: Century.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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