A whale of a view: Get to know migrating gray whales and how to see them from La Jolla

Watchers along La Jolla’s coast may be treated to a gray whale’s tail rising from the sea.
(Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

As part of their annual round trip to Baja California and back to the Arctic region, gray whales be seen from La Jolla’s coast from December to about April.

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La Jolla has its share of beautiful coastal views year-round, from Scripps Pier to the sunsets at Windansea. But for a few months each year, the occasional geyser-like bursts of air from gray whales out at sea join the mix.

As part of their 10,000-mile-plus annual round trip to Baja California and back to the Arctic region, gray whales be seen from La Jolla’s coast from December to about April.

They’re now making their southern migration to their breeding and calving grounds in the lagoons of Baja, where most will stay from January to March. The migration back to their northern feeding grounds begins for some in February and is completed for most by May.

Gray whales, which weigh 70,000 to 90,000 pounds, travel at about 5 mph and average about 75 miles a day, according to the Oceanic Society. Newborns are about 15 feet long and weigh about 1,500 pounds.

Ally Rice, a staff researcher at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, said “gray whales are interesting because they make one of the longest migrations of any mammal. They spend the winter down in these little warm lagoons in Baja California ... to mate and give birth because it is a nice warm place. What people see now is the whales passing San Diego as they head down. ... Then in the spring they will be heading back north.”

The migration is staggered, she said, and pregnant whales might head down sooner. Those that have given birth might head north later. As they pass our coast, they need to come up for air, which provides a chance to see them.

A local waterman and a marine biologist have differing views on whether the animal’s injuries were caused by a shark attack.

Contrary to popular belief, Rice said, the whales are not blowing water out of their spouts when they breach.

“It’s actually hot breath reaching the cold air and creating condensation,” she said. “Then they breathe in and dive back down. [The condensation] can be 15 feet high, so that is the easiest thing to see. You can see it from far away and it will hang out in the air, so even if the body is underwater, you can see the breath. Gray whales ... will take three to five breaths and go under for 10 minutes and come up again.”

One also might see a whale’s 10-foot-wide tail during a dive.

A spout of air from a gray whale is a sight that can sometimes be seen from the La Jolla coast.
(Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Viewing spots in La Jolla

Places in La Jolla such as The Cove and the Torrey Pines Gliderport provide a high vantage point to see the whales as they make their journey.

Another spot is Whale View Point, a short stretch of shoreline parks along Coast Boulevard South.

Area resident and La Jolla Parks & Beaches board member Ann Dynes, who shepherded a project to put native vegetation and new benches at Whale View Point, said she has seen whales from there on occasion.

“It’s purely random; you have to be sitting outside looking out,” she said. “But once, [my husband, Bob, and I] saw a mother and her calf that had gotten trapped in the kelp bed, so they were really close. Other times, you see them breach out of the kelp beds. It’s just a question of how close they come and how often they breach. We feel beyond lucky that we get to look out at the beautiful water. To me, the whales are a lovely occasional happenstance that enhances … one of the nicest little coastlines.”

Whale View Point is located roughly in the 300-600 blocks of Coast Boulevard South. It was so named on an original La Jolla Park subdivision of 1887 that was prepared for the Pacific Land Bureau. The city of San Diego later took to calling the area Cuvier Park because the largest viewing area is at the end of Cuvier Street.

La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten said locals must have named the area Whale View Point, possibly for the occasional viewing of whales, as other landmarks in the area are similarly named for other things.

“Some other nearby points identified on the map are Rocky Point, Alligator Head Point and Goldfish Point,” she said, and “in reading the social reports in some of the old late-19th-century newspapers, I occasionally have come across people referencing their observances of sea life offshore, but most often the smaller seal critters.”

Benches at lookouts along Whale View Point in La Jolla provide a place to watch for whales and other sea life.
Benches at lookouts along Whale View Point in La Jolla provide a place to watch for whales and other sea life.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Whale-watching tips

Rice suggests binoculars when watching for gray whales from shore — and a little patience.

“Gray whales are one of the smaller of the baleen whales, but they can still get up to 45 to 50 feet long,” she said. “They are distinct in that they have a mottled gray color instead of one color and have barnacles on their heads, so they have this bumpy appearance. A lot of these bigger whales have baleen, which are hard plates at the top of their jaw made of keratin like our fingernails. Gray whales ... are bottom feeders. They dive down, roll onto their sides and leave their mouth open and suck up the sediment and take up all the little critters on the seafloor and filter it though their baleen.”

Local companies offer whale-watching tours at sea, though Rice advises those aboard boats to keep their distance. The Marine Mammal Protection Act calls for 100-yard separation between vessels and whales to prevent injury. ◆


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