How To See the Gray Whale Migration and Help Save a Life
- Species conservation
- Natural history
Thousands of gray whales embark on the longest migration of any mammal each year, swimming up to 14,000 miles roundtrip from their Arctic feeding grounds to the warm lagoons of Mexico. As they generally stay in shallow waters, gray whales are a truly coastal species, and there are many amazing opportunities to see them from California’s beaches, headlands and coastal cliffs.
Once on the verge of extinction, the recovery of the eastern North Pacific gray whale population was considered a monumental conservation success. Now many scientists worry about the future for this species. In 2019, gray whales began washing up in high numbers, leading NOAA to declare an Unusual Mortality Event that is ongoing today. The Center’s researchers are leading contributors in a working group investigating the underlying causes for the increased strandings. Our experts are actively monitoring the health of gray whales traveling along the California coast and taking action to protect them.
Here’s where you come in. Seeing a gray whale in the vast ocean is an awe-inspiring experience, and there are still plenty of places to view them. Did you know that you can help conservation efforts when you go whale watching? Learn when and where to watch the gray whale migration from shore, and how you can report your sightings to help protect these gentle giants.
During summer, gray whales live in Arctic regions that are richer in their food. As fall approaches, there is less sunlight and less food, and the water turns cold. This is when the whales travel to Baja California, Mexico, where they enter warm lagoons to mate and give birth.
Gray whales can be seen passing by California in December and January during their southern migration, and again between mid-February and early May on their journey north. The timing of the northern migration is staggered by the age and sex of the whales, with the majority seen from the California coast in March and April.
Mothers and their newborn calves travel together and are typically the last group to migrate north, leaving the nursery lagoons only when the calves have gained enough strength. You can likely see them traveling past California throughout April and into early May. As the mothers and calves tend to hug the coast to avoid predators, they are closer and typically easier to spot from shore—leading to very special experiences for whale watchers.
Gray whales are constantly swimming during their migration period, and they can be seen during any hour or tidal state. But for best viewing conditions, it's ideal to have the sun behind you, so try to head out in the mornings when the sun is in the east.
As you slowly scan the ocean horizon, from left to right and back again, be on the lookout for flukes, backs, spouts and breaching behavior. Gray whales will often lift their flukes, or tail fins, out of the water as they dive beneath the ocean surface.
When they emerge for a breath of air, their backs can be identified by their gray and white patterning. (Fun fact: the white patches are mostly made up of barnacles and whale lice, which can weigh more than 400 pounds!) With no dorsal fin, this species instead has a low hump and a trail of knuckles or bumps along their back.
As gray whales breathe out from their two blowholes, bursts of exhaled air will condensate and form puffy, often heart-shaped spouts that linger for a moment above the horizon. Keep your eyes peeled if you see a spout, as the whale may emerge again.
Many of the best whale watching spots are only a drive or walk along the beach away. Check out these viewpoints to help you plan your trip. (As weather conditions can sometimes impact visitation, be sure to confirm online or with your local parks service that the viewpoint is currently open before you leave.)
Gray Whale Migration Map
Explore the gray whale migration map below to follow the whales’ incredible journey from their feeding grounds to breeding grounds, and then north again. Position yourself on the migration route and select a California coastal viewpoint near you.
A Cetacean Researcher’s Top Whale Watching Spots
Bill Keener has dedicated his career to studying cetaceans, or whales, dolphins and porpoises. As one of the Center's cetacean experts, he's shared five vantage points in Northern and Central California where you’ll have a good chance of spotting gray whales. See the migration map for even more viewing locations.
- Point Reyes Lighthouse - What better place to spot whales than from California’s longest peninsula? Point Reyes projects an impressive 10 miles into the ocean, giving you a unique opportunity to catch a closer glimpse of the migration than most places. Visit the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula for the best viewpoint.
- Bodega Head - Gray whales are frequently seen from this granite headland in Sonoma Coast State Park as they take advantage of the nutrient-rich waters in the local marine protected areas. For an excellent whale watching vantage point, you’ll want to follow Bodega Head Trail and loop along the top of the bluffs.
- Point Arena-Stornetta Unit - Point Arena-Stornetta Unit, part of the California Coastal National Monument in Mendocino County, provides unique coastal habitat for marine mammals and other wildlife. The point itself juts farther west into the Pacific Ocean, which makes it an excellent location for sighting gray whales as they round the curve along their migration route.
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve - Incredible ecological recovery at Point Lobos near Monterey has earned it widespread recognition as the “crown jewel of the California State Park System.” From the high ocean viewpoints along the park’s trails, gray whales are often sighted migrating through the local marine protected area.
- Fort Funston - Want to watch for migrating whales within San Francisco? Head to Fort Funston, the city’s southernmost beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Walk to the top of the bluffs where the hang-glider port is located for a vast view of the ocean.
Gray whales are sentinels of the sea, and right now they are sending SOS signals. The tragic reality is that the population has dropped almost 40 percent along the California coast. Starving whales are washing ashore as they struggle to find food in the Arctic, likely due to climate change. Amidst other negative human impacts they face like ship strikes and entanglements in ocean trash, conservation action is urgently needed.
Your observations will help researchers monitor gray whales and provide key insights to the health of this species. And the more we learn about these animals, the better equipped we can be to protect them.
Report Your Gray Whale Sightings
If you spot a whale anywhere in San Francisco Bay, report your sighting through the Center’s community science portal. Not in San Francisco? Download the free Whale Alert app for your mobile device to report your sighting from any location.
You can help drive this critical voyage of discovery when you witness the gray whale migration. So pack your binoculars, have Whale Alert ready and go scan the ocean horizon. You might even help save the life of the whale you see.
Yes, I want to save a life!
You’ll be giving sick and injured animals the best possible care at the Center’s state-of-the-art hospital. With your gift today, you are giving a patient a second chance at life in the wild.