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BODEGA BAY - Hopeful whale watchers Sunday gathered on picturesque Bodega Head, scanning far out into the ocean for signs of the majestic migrating mammals.

It was a classic winter day for it: cool, with a light breeze, a bit of warmth from a weakened winter sun. A band of clouds above the horizon enhanced the coastal scene.

For a while in the early afternoon, the show was mostly limited to whale spouts here and there.

Bodega Head, a promontory at Bodega Bay, is the most popular pilgrimage site in Sonoma County for whale watching because it sits high above the ocean with long coast vistas up, down and out for miles.

A steady stream of people Sunday came and went. There were the serious watchers, with binoculars and warm jackets, and the less serious, sometimes in T-shirts and shorts, hoping apparently for a quick spotting before moving on.

A few brought chairs or pulled up a well-placed rock to sit and gaze out to sea.

"Where are they? Where are they?" is the most frequent question asked of the numerous volunteer whale watchers who staff the area.

"They're out there," the volunteers reply, offering tips for sightings and whale education.

Longtime whale-watcher volunteer Jeremy Nichols of Santa Rosa said the duty "is one of the better volunteer opportunities in Sonoma County."

The best part is helping people spot whales, often for their first time.

"We get to share in that excitement," Nichols said.

By early January, this leg of the gray whales' annual trek from Alaska to Baja for calving season is nearing its end. Heading south, the whales typically travel fairly far offshore.

Watchers pick an area and train their eyes out toward the horizon and hope. Veteran whale fan Louella Pizzuti of Sunnyvale watched from a chair on the bluff. She wore a knit hat and gloves for warmth.

Pizzuti has been at the coast each day since New Year's Eve.

"Three days ago, I saw a dozen" over several hours of looking, she said.

Sometimes to help others look in the right direction, she said, she'll grab their heads -- "I know you're not supposed to touch strangers" -- to point them.

She said the best watching will be in a few months when the whales start back north and typically swim closer to land.

"I like Mother's Day. The mothers and babies are coming by and they're really super close," she said.

Heather Buonaccorsi of Sebastopol and her family were at Bodega Head enjoying the sunny winter day.

She took a more leisurely approach to whale watching than some.

Rather than staring at the ocean, she periodically scanned the cluster of more serious watchers for clues of sightings.

"I keep an eye on what they're doing," said Buonaccorsi. "If you see them pointing and looking . . ."

Carole and Tony McMahon of Petaluma had never been to Bodega Head but the idea of looking for the passing whales brought them out Sunday to Sonoma Coast State Park.

"With or without the whales, this is worth doing," Tony McMahon said.

"I would like to see some, but I won't be disappointed if I don't," Carole McMahon said.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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