There they are! Right there," cried Jan Gianni of Windsor, pointing as a pair of feeding whales on Monday broke the ocean's surface 100 yards off Bodega Head.
Her husband, Dan, said he was shocked to see whales from shore in summer.
"I think I counted at least 10 or 12," he said. "We didn't even know they were here."
Crowds gathered along the cliffs at Bodega Head on Labor Day to witness the unusual sight. Three of the ocean giants fed in the water close to shore, occasionally spouting or showing a flipper.
A mile offshore, two other whales blew spray. One of them breached, making a visible splash.
It's not uncommon to see whales off the Sonoma County coast in summer, said Doreen Gurrola, marine science instructor at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. But it is rare to see so many, she said.
"This has been a really good year for them," she said. "There's lots of krill in the water."
Krill are small, shrimp-like marine crustaceans that are a major food source for fish, birds and marine mammals. This year, the krill population exploded, providing a banquet for whales.
The whales feeding off the Northern California coast this summer are mostly humpbacks, blues and grays, Gurrola said.
Some are "lunge feeding," diving into dense swarms of krill and gulping big mouthfuls, she said.
By the beginning of November, most will migrate south to Mexico and Central America, Gurrola said.
Whale-watching season on the Sonoma Coast normally is from January to May, when gray whales migrate north. But some whales will stick around if the conditions are right, she said.
On Monday, whale buff and volunteer docent Larry Tiller answered visitors' questions at Bodega Head, part of Sonoma Coast State Beach.
"I suspect those are humpbacks," he said, as a pair of whales spouted far offshore.
The parking lot at Bodega Bay, normally crowded on a Labor Day afternoon, was overflowing. People set up chairs and picnic blankets at the cliffs' edge to watch the creatures perform.
Many used telescopes, binoculars and long-lens cameras to capture the scene, but the whales were easy to see without them.
On Monday, the viewing conditions were ideal, with clear skies and gentle swells.
Tiller, who volunteers for Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, a Sonoma County environmental group, said he's been spotting whales from Bodega Head nearly every day for two months.
He estimated about 20 whales are staying to feed in the ocean between Point Reyes and the Russian River.
"This is very unusual," said Tiller of Healdsburg. "Last year, we had five."
The whales' show is generating lots of calls to the Sonoma Coast Visitor Center in Bodega Bay, said Julie-Ann Hill, an adviser there.
"It's just a wonderment," she said. "We've seen up to 18 at a time."
It's hard to predict the best time for viewing, Hill said.
"I've been telling people to go in the morning," she said. "I find it's better at high tide, when the whales can get closer to shore. You don't really need to go out on a boat to see them."
You can reach Staff Writer Steve Hart at 521-5205 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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