Gray whales are swimming up California’s Central Coast. Here’s how to see them

Next time you’re on a coastal bluff, keep an eye out for a telltale puff of misty water in the ocean: It could be a gray whale surfacing to breathe.

The whales are currently in the middle of their northbound migration up to the Bering Sea, and they’re beginning to be spotted in greater numbers along the Central Coast.

PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey snapped some photos of a gray whale while he was operating a tour boat just north of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on Tuesday.

“They look almost like sea serpents,” Lindsey said. He added that he and his group saw between 7 and 9 of the whales that day, mostly mothers and calves.

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PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey captured this photo of a gray whale near the Diablo Canyon power plant on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. John Lindsey

“Right now we’re seeing a lot of males and juveniles going north, and the moms and calves are a little slower,” said Tom Moylan, marine operations manager at the Cal Poly Pier.

Moylan said that mothers and calves are seen more often in April and May, and gray whales are generally not seen along the San Luis Obispo County coastline after May.

However, there are no hard-and-fast rules with whales.

“The thing with making these kinds of generalizations is that they’re just generalizations,” Moylan said. “The whales are going to do what they want to do.”

‘Energy conservation mode’

Gray whales are a little harder to spot than other types of whales, like humpback whales, Moylan said.

“They’re not performers like the humpbacks are,” Moylan said. “The grays are in energy conservation mode.”

You might see the whales when they surface to breathe, and their tails may also be visible as they dive back down into the water. But they don’t breach like humpback whales, which often leap out of the water when they come up to breathe.

“They’re just sort of being very efficient in their journey up north,” Moylan said.

Gray whales spend the witner in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, where they mate and give birth. Then they travel back up to their feeding grounds in the Arctic for the summer — swimming 3,000 miles each way, Moylan said.

“Southbounders tend to peak in early January, and northbounders peak probably sometime in April, and that can vary by weeks per season, too,” Moylan said. “Not every year is exactly the same.”

According to the American Cetacean Society’s Los Angeles chapter, which conducts a count of gray whales from Point Vicente, 1,155 gray whales have been seen traveling northbound from Dec. 1, 2018, to March 20, 2019. In that same time frame, the organization said they have counted 538 gray whales traveling southbound, including 24 calves.

How to look for them

If you’re watching for gray whales from the shore, you’ll be able to spot their blows, which happen when they push air out of their blowhole, creating a misty plume. You might even be able to spot a baby whale that way.

“If you see two blows and one is much smaller, that’s the calf,” Moylan said. “You’ll see the mom come up and blow and then a little tiny puff,”

The best place to view them on land is from a coastal bluff, preferably one that sticks out into the water a bit so the whales have to swim around it, Moylan said. The distance the whales travel from the shore can vary, but they tend to stay along the coastline.

“They’re not 50 miles offshore,” Moylan said. “A lot of them try to be efficient and swim the straightest line up the coast.”

Moylan recommended Montaña de Oro, Point Buchon Trail and Piedras Blancas Light Station as good viewing points, though access to Point Buchon and Piedras Blancas is restricted to certain days.

Lindsey also recommended Piedras Blancas and Windy Point on the Point Buchon Trail, as well as the Point San Luis Lighthouse.

“Those are the three primo areas to spot whales, from my experience,” Lindsey said.

“Go in the morning before the wind comes up, have a good pair of binoculars and sit in one spot and watch,” Moylan said, and on a good day a viewer can spot tens of blows along the coastline.

“If you want to go out a little closer, you have to go on a whale-watching boat in a place like Avila Beach or Morro Bay,” he added.

Moylan also said he’s sometimes observed mothers and babies taking a little bit of a rest in more protected waters, like bays. If people want to try to see that, he said the piers in Pismo Beach, Avila Beach and Cayucos are good places to go, though there are no guarantees.

“Just get out and see what’s on your coast,” Moylan said. “There are amazing opportunities. We’re blessed with a lot of open space, and it’s amazing if you go and watch what you will see.”

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Gabby Ferreira is a breaking news and general assignment reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. A native of Houston, Texas, she was a reporter in Tucson, Arizona; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Palm Springs, California, before moving to San Luis Obispo County in 2016.