Whale Watching Along the California Coast
From the dolphins that appear among the waves to the sea turtles and schools of fish beneath the ocean’s surface, Southern California is home to an abundance of incredible sea life.
Perhaps the most impressive of all is the tremendous gray whale, known to migrate along the coast near Malibu Beach Inn from early December to mid-May. Each winter, whale sightings increase dramatically as 20,000 gray whales make the journey from Alaska to Baja and back again, and this season, boat captains are expecting another banner year after last year was one of the busiest on record.
“It’s thrilling,” says Rick Oefinger, President of Marina del Rey Sportfishing. “Imagine seeing some creature that is 40 or 60 feet long, and you’re within a hundred yards of them. I’ve been doing this all my life and I still get excited.”
In Malibu, whale watchers can sometimes spot whales from the comfort of their beach chairs on Westward Beach, Zuma Beach, and other shorelines between Zuma and Point Mugu. But arguably the best land view awaits on the cliffs of Point Dume, where locals and visitors can clearly look out over 180 degrees of the Pacific.
For those who wish to get up close and personal (while still keeping a respectful 100 yards away from the whales), whale watching boat excursions are offered daily from Marina del Rey and other southern harbors. Oefinger himself has been captaining whale watching expeditions, as well as sportfishing trips, five days a week for the last 40 years out of Marina del Rey.
Sometimes his crew has to search the coastline for whales, but generally the creatures can be found right in Santa Monica Bay because they come in to feed on the bay’s krill. Female whales that have just given birth to new calves are especially known for staying close to shore on the journey back to Alaska.
“Santa Monica Bay is just a wonderful place,” he says. “There is so much life here. Especially during the gray whale migration, we might see whales the second we leave the harbor. A lot of them follow the contour of the coast a few hundred yards offshore.”
Photo credit: Marina Del Rey Sport Fishing
Then, of course, there is the added bonus of spotting other sea creatures. Boat passengers can almost always expect to see dolphins and porpoises, as well as the occasional sea lion or sea turtle. Oefinger admits that children are usually more excited about the jumping dolphins, which often swim along the sides and bow of the boat, but maintains that there is simply nothing like spotting a whale.
“There’s a myriad of wonderful sea life to see on any of our cruises,” says Oefinger, “but we are primarily in search of whales. They are just incredibly magnificent creatures.”
There are obvious indications of gray whales like a spout of water expelling from a whale’s double air hole, or a breach, in which a whale leaps almost completely out of the water. But expert watermen know that a pod of whales could be nearby with just a subtle movement of the ocean. (“Most of us are fishermen at heart, and we have an eye for stuff like that,” Oefinger says.) The watermen of Santa Monica Bay keep an eye out for the whales and communicate with each other via radio to reveal exact locations.
During the gray whale season, Oefinger says your chance of seeing whales while on an excursion is about 95 percent, and during the rest of the year, he would place it as high as 80 percent. When the gray whales are not passing through, whale watching boats track blue whales, humpbacks, fins, and other pelagic fish.
And although the law forbids vessels from getting within 100 yards of a whale, Oefinger says the sea creatures are often curious and will swim up to the boats on their own. In that case, it’s time to cut the engine and enjoy one of the ocean’s most magnificent inhabitants.