It’s December, and believe it or not, I’m not thinking about holiday season. I’m thinking about whale migration season!
In December and January, gray whales migrate south past our coast on their way from their arctic feeding grounds to their Baja California breeding grounds. Gray whales migrate 16,000km (10,000mi) round-trip, which may be the longest migration for any mammal. They are swimming for almost two months each way!
Have you ever seen a whale? If you haven’t, put it on your bucket list right now. There are few experiences more incredible that seeing these massive marine mammals. I’ll never forget the time when I was on a boat and nearly every passenger had raced to the other side of the boat to see a passing whale. For some reason, I hadn’t followed the crowd, choosing instead to see what would happen on my quiet side of the boat. And then, suddenly, a huge eye appeared out of the water, followed by the body of a baby humpback whale. Did we actually make eye contact? I don’t know, but it sure felt like it. In that moment, I felt closer to the ocean and its creatures than ever before.
I went on my first whale watching boat trip in the 5th grade and have been hooked ever since. I’ve gone on whale watching trips in places like Cape Cod, Vancouver Island and Maui. But my favorite trips have always been the local ones: out of Monterey Bay, Half Moon Bay and out by the Farallon Islands. On one particular trip to the Farallon Islands, our group saw three species of whales: Gray, Humpback and Blue!
Even if you can’t go on a boat trip, you can still see whales from land. Gray whales often travel very close to the shore. Some good whale spotting points include Point Reyes and Big Sur. I’ve also even seen whales more than once from Lands End in San Francisco!
To spot a whale from land, you have to watch for whale spouts. As whales come to the surface to breathe, they force air from their lungs, sending it high into the air. Gray whales produce a heart-shaped plume and experts may be able to tell a whale species from the plume shape alone. If you are very lucky, you may see whales spyhopping or breaching. Spyhopping is when whales vertically stick their heads out of the water. Breaching is when whales leap out of water.
Make sure to bring binoculars for your whale spotting adventure. You’ll also want to choose a day with good visibility. Of course, you’ll never know exactly when the whales will be passing, but all the more reason to spend more time outside appreciating the other plants and animals. Then you’ll be ready when the whales do show up. And if I can offer one tiny piece of advice: don’t waste the precious seconds of whale watching trying to get a picture. By the time you’ve snapped, they may be gone.
Here are some ideas for studying gray whales at home or in the classroom:
- Read this NOAA Kids Times article. Or this more detailed article from NPS.
- Listen to and explore whale sounds.
- Create a map showing the gray whale’s migration route. Have a discussion about what obstacles gray whales might face on their long journey.
- Research and graph how whale populations have changed over time and why.
- Design a whale matching game.
- Draw pictures of different whale species and whale behaviors. Present them to other groups.
- Discuss pros and cons of whale watching trips. Are there downsides to whale watching tourism? Do you think the positives outweigh the negatives? Why or why not?
- Think of ideas of how you can help protect whales.
Happy whale season!
Photo Credits: https://marinelife.noaa.gov/media_lib/preview.aspx?ID=3722&p=img# : Laura Francis