It was an unusually warm and tranquil April day a few years ago on the Pacific as our PG&E research and monitoring vessel hugged the Pecho Coast as we traveled northwestward from Diablo Canyon Power Plant’s marina to Point Buchon, located just south of Montaña de Oro State Park.
As I was looking eastward toward Point Buchon and not more than a few hundred yards off the coast, a creature that resembled a gigantic sea serpent with a spine of well-defined back and white bumps ascended into the air then softly moved back into the ocean near a kelp bed. My mind raced to process what I had just seen a few yards away, then a moment later I heard, saw and smelled the blow of another California gray whale that surfaced nearby and put my mind at ease.
Their blows can be visible from miles away. That’s because the air they exhale is quite warm from the whale’s internal body heat, and when it collides with the cooler maritime air, it immediately condenses into a visible spout or cloud of water vapor.
According to retired PG&E marine biologist Sally Krenn, gray whales were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 1800s when whalers discovered their calving lagoons in Baja California. The whalers named them “devil fish” because of their reputation for overturning boats when attacked. Today, there are over 25,000 gray whales, and they have been removed from the endangered species list. Gray whales can reach nearly 50 feet in length, weigh 36 tons and can live up to 70 years.
In summer, they are primarily found in the Bering Sea and even as far north as the Arctic Ocean when the nearly 24-hour sunlight produces enormous phytoplankton blooms due to the miracle of photosynthesis. These plants, in turn, provide food for the zooplankton. As these small zooplankton animals eat the phytoplankton, their population also naturally explodes. The gray whales use their bristly baleen plates instead of teeth to filter out the small zooplankton creatures on the bottom of the relative shallow Bering Sea.
On average, they consume around 65 tons of zooplankton per year!
When the days grow shorter in fall, the whales start their journey southward to the balmier climate and warm coastal lagoons of the southern Baja Peninsula to give birth and mate.
Along the Central Coast, these cetaceans can be seen in December and January on their southern migration. During this migration, they tend to stay farther out to sea. However, on their northward journey that occurs in late February into early May, cow and calf pairs remain close to the shoreline to avoid killer whales. On May 8, 2014, a pod of orcas killed a calf off Morro Bay.
Last week, I noticed quite a few gray whales on their journey northward. Many of these magnificent mammals will travel between 9,000 and 12,000 miles on their round trip. Some of these whales never make it to Baja, but turn around in mid-migration and head back north. A few gray whales remain along the California coast throughout the summer.
This is one of the longest migrations of any creature on the face of Earth. In fact, according to a study published by Oregon State University, a gray whale traveled nearly 14,000 miles from Russia to Mexico and back again. This epic journey took 172 days with an average speed of about 3.4 mph.
The peak of the northern migration usually occurs in April, but not all years are the same. There are beautiful locations throughout the Central Coast to view these whales, especially points of land that extend into the Pacific, where the whales come closest such as Point Buchon.
To hike to Point Buchon, which is located on Diablo Canyon lands, please visit www.pge.com then select the “In Your Community” tab and look for Diablo Canyon tails for information.
Another tail on Diablo Canyon lands that is also open to the public but is led by a docent is the Pecho Coast Trail that takes you to the Point Luis Lighthouse, which is operated by the Port San Luis Harbor District and lovingly restored and maintained by the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers.
This is my favorite spot for viewing the northward migration. There are times when the moms and calves are so close to the lighthouse you could almost touch them. If you don’t feel like hiking, you can ride the lighthouse trolley. To make reservations, please visit www.pointsanluislighthouse.org. You can also take a whale watching cruise from commercial charter boats out of Port San Luis or Morro Bay.