Kids love singing about Baby Belugas swimming free in the deep blue sea but how often do they get to actually see whales and appreciate the ocean's largest living creatures? Thanks to winter migrations, there's a dry way to watch real whales this season and you can even make it a day trip—no dry-suit or boat necessary.
Every year, thousands of people head to the California Coast to look for the tell-tale spouts of Pacific gray whales. In January these whales migrate south from the arctic waters of Alaska to the warm coves and estuaries of Baja California to give birth to their calves and in March, they make it back north as a newly expanded family. The Bay Area is blessed to count three choice spots where patience and luck will be your best allies to spot the biggest mammals on earth.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Jutting ten miles into the Pacific Ocean, the Point Reyes peninsula offers the best whale-viewing opportunities of the Bay Area. Each Out at the Point Reyes Lighthouse, kids and adults take turns scanning the blue waters through binoculars to see the much-anticipated spouts. Docents are on site every weekend ready to answer any and all questions about whale food, whale habits and diving feats and ranger-led programs can give you the low down on how whales have evolved over thousands of years.
On your trip, don't forget to have the kids touch the whale skull and whale bones right outside the Lighthouse visitor center, and the whale baleens inside. As an added bonus, kids will love entering the lighthouse to see the giant Fresnel lens. Note that child carriers are much more appropriate for this trip than strollers as you'll need to navigate 308 steps down to the lighthouse and observation deck.
In terms of timing and if you want to see the whales and their calves, wait until March or early April as whale moms and calves swim north closer to land. Whatever the time, the two best areas are around Chimney Rock and the Lighthouse.
Hours: The Lighthouse Visitor Center and stairs are open 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursdays through Mondays. When wind speeds exceed 40 m.p.h., the steps to the lighthouse are closed for visitors' safety. Website: http://www.nps.gov/pore/index.htm
Bodega Head/Sonoma Coast State Beach
Part of the Sonoma Coast State Beach, the Bodega Head is a rocky outcropping north of Bodega Bay where the southernmost parking lot is steps from an outstanding whale-viewing area. As you arrive there, a giant signs on whales greets visitors and sets you right into the mood. You can try your luck any day of the week but for educated guidance on how to increase your whale-watching chances, weekends are best.
Indeed, every weekend from January through Mother's Day weekend, trained docents from the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods are on site as part of a whale watch program and share their knowledge on the giant cetaceans. They'll be able to tell you whether the spout belongs to a juvenile or an adult whale, which direction the whales are going or pinpoint a back and tail if you can find a blow.
Again, March and early April are the best months to see cows and calves as they will often stop on the jetty side of the Head to rest and nurse or come slowly past the tip of the Head to Horseshoe Cove at a leisurely pace.
Hours: Daily during daytime, docents available only on weekends. Website: http://www.stewardsofthecoastandredwoods.org/index.htm
Pigeon Point State Historic Park
Fifty miles south of San Francisco on the coast after Pescadero, the Pigeon Point Light Station is the tallest lighthouse on the California Coast and a local landmark guarding rough waters. It is also a great whale watching spot during winter and spring migrations as the whales travel relatively close to the lighthouse grounds, particularly in the shallow waters of the cove south of the point. After you get to the station's overlook boardwalk behind the fog horn signal building, grab your binoculars and look for north-bound California gray whale cows and their new calves taking advantage of the safety of the cove.
If you've always dreamed of overnighting in a lighthouse, this is the place to make your dream come true! Four light station buildings have been converted into the Pigeon Point Youth Hostel and families can even sleep in their own private bunks. Way to extend the whale watching adventure!
Hours: Daily from 8am to sunset. Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=533
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