California Gray Whale Migration: What You Need to Know (and How to See it!)

Last Updated on February 7, 2024 by Jess Grigsby

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gray-whale

Each March, gray whales begin their migration north. 

During this time, an estimated 20,000 massive gray whales swim thousands of miles, from the warm water of their southern nursery lagoons to the cold, food-dense hunting grounds of the Arctic. 

For a limited time each year, it’s possible to see these majestic creatures as they make their journey.

In this blog, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the gray whale migration in California and help you learn how to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What are Gray Whales? 

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Gray whales are the seventh-largest whale species on earth – growing to about 44-48 feet long and weighing 90,000 lbs or more. 

Each year, gray whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal on earth, swimming 10,000 miles round-trip from the warm waters of Mexico, along the coast of California, toward their Alaskan feeding grounds. 

Despite their massive size, gray whales are bottom feeders that consume small invertebrates by sucking sediment and food from the seafloor and using the baleen plates in their jaws to filter the edible material. 

Gray whales are famous for being curious creatures and are the subject of much of the whale watching and ecotourism along the West Coast.

Gray whales were once common throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Unfortunately, their numbers have declined; today, they only exist in the North Pacific. 

Due to persistent threats, gray whales are listed as endangered under the Marine Mammal Protection Act

They are the subject of many conservation efforts designed to protect whales and limit the harmful effects of human activities on their populations. 

When Do Gray Whales Migrate? 

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Gray whales migrate a few times each year

In the summer, these massive mammals spend their time feeding in the frigid, nutrient-dense waters of the Arctic. 

In September, the gray whales leave the Arctic feeding grounds to head south to their breeding and calving waters near Baja, California, Mexico. Traveling about 5 miles per hour, these whales swim about 75 miles daily. 

By late December, the whales arrive in the warm waters of Baja California, where they birth their calves and nurse them until it’s time to head back north.

In March, they leave the calving grounds and head north once more, swimming along California’s coastline in large numbers. This migration is unique because it allows whale watchers to see females with young calves at their sides. 

Where Can I See Gray Whales Migrating in California? 

If you’re in California, you’re already in a great place to see migrating gray whales. 

There are several excellent places to see the whales on their annual migration. 

Here are our favorites:

1. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is an excellent place to see whales during their spring migration. It’s also the perfect spot to catch a glimpse of sea otters, dolphins, and seals all year long. 

Wilder Ranch State Park is one of our favorite places to glimpse these beautiful creatures. Don’t forget your camera!

2. Monterey County

Monterey County is a great place to see gray whales during their migration because of the deep, cold, food-rich submarine canyon that lies offshore. 

Popular places for whale sightings include Asilomar State Beach, Point Sur Lighthouse, and the beaches at Moss Landing, which lies near the tip of the Monterey Submarine Canyon. 

3. Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, you’ve got a good chance of spotting migrating gray whales until about mid-May. 

For the best chance of spotting whales near LA, we recommend Point Dume Nature Preserve, the Dana Point Headlands, and the outdoor tide-pool plaza at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla. 

4. San Diego

San Diego is the southernmost point in California to see gray whales on their spring migration. 

We recommend getting a bird’s-eye view from the bluffs at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve or heading to Cabrillo National Monument, just 10 minutes southwest of San Diego in Point Loma.  

What is the Best Way to See Gray Whales on Their Annual Migration?

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If you want to see gray whales on their spring migration, there are a few ways to do it. 

Here are some of the most common:

By boat

Whale-watching boat tours are a popular way to see migrating gray whales along the California coast. 

Boat tours can accommodate many people, which is great for groups. Plus, they place you slightly above the water’s surface, creating fantastic photo opportunities. 

From land

If you’d prefer to keep your feet on dry ground, there are lots of places that will allow you to see the gray whales migrating in the spring. 

These dry-land options offer stunning, sweeping vistas of the California coastline and the chance for a fun beach day with the family. If you’re taking photographs of the whales, remember to bring a high-powered lens to get good shots from the land. 

Tips for Observing Gray Whales 

Want to maximize your chances of seeing gray whales? Follow these tips:

  1. Book a trip with a reputable company. Your whale-watching tour will only be as good as the guide or company you book it through. With this in mind, seek an experienced guide to lead your tour. A good guide should be able to educate you about the whales, their environment, and the marine landscape you’re surrounded by. 
  2. Bring your camera. You’ll want to snap some pictures of gray whales when you see them. Bring your camera or smartphone, but pack it in a dry box or dry bag to protect it!
  3. Dress appropriately. The last thing you want to be thinking about when a gray whale is cresting nearby is that you wish you’d worn a hat. With this in mind, dress appropriately for your tour. We recommend contacting your tour guide about the weather forecast a few days before your trip and dressing in layers so you’ll stay comfortable throughout the tour. 
  4. Be respectful. Gray whale populations have dropped about 40% along the California coast in recent years. The animals are struggling with the effects of climate change and negative human impacts, including ship strikes and ocean trash entanglement. If you’re lucky enough to observe gray whales (or any marine animal), it’s essential to be respectful, give the animals plenty of space, and avoid doing anything that could cause them stress. 

Don’t Miss the Gray Whale Migration This Year!

Don’t let another year go by without being part of the gray whale migration! 

These beautiful creatures are an essential part of the Monterey marine environment, and seeing them should be on every nature-lover’s bucket list!

FAQs

1. What time are gray whales most active? 

The gray whale migration begins on the Central Coast in March and extends into April. During this time, you can see gray whales all day long. 

2. How far does the gray whale migrate? 

Gray whales migrate about 10,000 miles round-trip, although some migrations can extend upwards of 14,000 miles.

3. How do I identify a gray whale? 

Gray whales are easy to identify: instead of being uniformly gray, they display a unique, mottled color. They also have a distinct dorsal hump and a knuckled dorsal ridge right behind the hump. They do not have dorsal fins (unlike humpback whales). 

Author: Jess Grigsby

Since 2012, Jess has co-owned and operated Kayak Connection together with her husband Dave. She is a lawyer, coach, avid kayak enthusiast and mother of two teenage girls. At Kayak Connection, Jess oversees a team of experienced kayak guides who are all CPR certified, with many holding advanced Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certifications. Our team is composed of environmental educators, naturalists and classroom teachers with experience working with all kinds of visitors, from school groups to large corporate teams.