Whale-watchers are already spotting the graceful behemoths off Long Beach’s coast as gray whales begin to make their annual migration from Alaska to Baja California and back.
Gray whales, which are typically about 40 feet long and can weigh about 40 tons, will pass through Southern California’s waters from December to May, said Kera Mathes, Aquarium of the Pacific boat programs coordinator. The aquarium offers whale-watch cruises in partnership with Harbor Breeze.
“Peak viewing is in January through March,” Mathes said. “They do an annual migration from the north… When it gets cold, they leave and head south during the winter months when they are mating or calving (having babies).”
Traveling 12,000 to 14,000 miles round trip, the whales leave their Alaskan feeding grounds (they eat arthropods found in mud there) for the warm lagoon waters of Baja California. Baby whales are commonly sighted towards the end of the season on their first trip up north.
The gray whale is distinguishable by its dark gray coloring, typically with white barnacle scars or colored whale lice scattered on its back. Also, the gray whale lacks a dorsal fin, and has a dorsal hump instead, which helps whale-watchers differentiate it from other whale species.
Typically, the first sign of whale is the white, steam-like blow breaking the water’s surface. Gray whales also are known for creating a “footprint” on the water, or a flat circle on the surface, that is created by the whale’s fluke.
Mathes said aquarium representatives on Harbor Breeze’s whale-watch cruises take photos of the mammals and document sightings for marine research purposes. Also, the naturalists on board share tidbits of information about the whales with passengers.
In addition to gray whale sightings, passengers often see dolphins and other wildlife such as sea lions and sea birds. Sometimes too, fin whales, minke whales, humpbacks and orcas — or even the rare sperm whale — can be seen during gray whale cruises. Blue whales, the largest in the ocean, are sighted in the summer months.
Dan Salas of Harbor Breeze has said he recommends passengers bring a camera and warm clothing on board, since the temperature is typically 10 degrees cooler on the boat than on the mainland. Due to the motion of the ocean, he added that folks prone to seasickness might want to take medication before boarding the ship.
Harbor Breeze, in conjunction with the Aquarium of the Pacific, offers gray whale watch packages daily for $44.95 for adults, $29.95 for children or $40.95 for seniors. The whale watch package includes admission to the aquarium.