Originally published on USA Today.com
Off the shores of Orange County in southern California, whales can be spotted year-round and the whale watching is best off of Dana Point. Several species of whales and their cousins, dolphins, live or migrate here, including the large blue and gray whales. Unlike most whale-watching trips in North America, there’s no need to pile on winter clothing or storm-wear when sailing near the sunny and warm Orange Coast.
Up to 27 feet at birth and up to 110 feet long and 150 tons at maturity, the blue whale is the largest animal on earth. Blue whales inhabit all oceans, however, California is one of a few places where a day tour can bring people within close viewing distance. It’s one of the few spots in the world and the only in the United States that is home to a distinct blue whale population with its own genetics and language. Blue whales cruise at about 10 miles per hour, but a blue whale in a hurry can clock up to 30 mph. It can transmit sound across an ocean basin. Off the Orange Coast, for example, California blue whales can message with others visiting Hawaii. This ability helps these frequent travelers maintain social structure. You’ll have the best chance of seeing them off the Orange Coast in May through November, when krill feeding is optimal. California has the largest population of blue whales: 2,000 of the world’s 15,000. This whale is protected by the Endangered Species Act, and like all whale species, it’s protected from commercial hunting by the International Whaling Commission.
The migratory Eastern Pacific gray whale is commonly spotted along the Orange Coast from December through April. Like the humpback, the gray is a baleen whale that feeds in the frigid waters off the coast of Alaska and migrates to warm, less predatory waters in winter. Unlike humpbacks that winter in Hawaii, the grays head down to Baja California in Mexico. Some mate here and others give birth and nurse in the area, where calves are safe from orca, or killer whales. Eager to make it to the lagoons in time for delivery, pregnant grays leave northern waters first, passing near the Orange Coast in December. Females without calves that have mated head back home in February. The best time to see mother whales with calves off the Orange Coast is March through April. At birth, a gray whale measures about 15 feet long and weighs nearly a ton. It may mature to 46 feet, longer than a school bus, and to a weight of 36 tons. On their 12,000 mile round trip, gray whales cruise at three to five mph, logging about 70 to 80 miles per day. The gray whale is a success of conservation. After 350,000 gray whales were slaughtered in the 1900s alone, their population in the East Pacific was recently estimated at 25,000, according to the Ocean Institute.
Dana Point is big on whales. The town’s annual Festival of Whales (festivalofwhales.com) attracts more than 100,000 visitors from around the world. Its high cliffs are a landmark for migrating gray whales. Tour guides spot the signs from land and quickly navigate their vessels from the harbor. This is likely the best place in Orange County to whale watch. The more noteworthy tours out of Dana Point Harbor include those run by Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Safari (dolphinsafari.com), Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whalewatching (danapointharbor.com) and Ocean Institute (ocean-institute.org). Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Safari’s sailing catamarans often provide whale watchers close-up eye contact with a gentle giant from an underwater viewing pod. Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whalewatching is endorsed by well-known marine artist Wyland, and its main whale-watching vessel is two stories of comfort, including a full service bar. The Ocean Institute is an educational facility with naturalists on hand to immerse guests in whale-speak.
Dana Point daytime temperatures average 67 degrees Fahrenheit in December to 80 F in August. Temperatures drop about 10 to 15 degrees at sea, so wear layered clothing on your whale-watching trip. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat and a camera with zoom. If you’re prone to motion sickness, bring a favorite remedy and go in the morning when the ocean is calmest. Binoculars are not needed because tour guides find the whales and bring guests up close.