Where to whale watch in Mendocino County
About 30 minutes into the guided whale walk, in the middle of the bluffs in Mendocino Headlands State Park, MendoParks naturalist Amelia Schall spotted a blow.
“There!” she exclaimed, pointing beyond a red buoy and interrupting her own exposition of a theory about when is the best time to watch for whales from shore. “I'm not sure how many we're talking about. There are definitely gray whales out there.”
Some members of the 15-person group snapped into action, raising binoculars and peering out about a mile in the direction of Schall's outstretched finger. The rest scrunched their foreheads and squinted whale-ward, hoping to fix on the right spot at precisely the right moment to see some of the largest creatures on Earth.
Ten seconds passed, maybe 20. Then, almost as if on cue, the leviathan surfaced again, shooting more spray into the air. This time the blow was unmistakable. And there were others - a second, then a third about 50 yards south.
Participants on the MendoParks' weekly guided whale walk were beside themselves with glee. One couple high-fived. A woman smiled from ear to ear. A teenage boy on vacation with his parents whipped out his phone and texted a friend with the news.
“Now you can say you saw a whale,” said Bill Schiffbauer, the MendoParks docent who led the tour. “It's gonna be a good day.”
Why and where
By Schiffbauer's standards, most days are good days these days on the Mendocino County coast, as gray whales are appearing with increasing frequency. Every winter, roughly 25,000 gray whales take part in one of the longest annual animal migrations on Earth, some 10,000 miles from the cold, fish-rich waters of the Gulf of Alaska to the warm, calm waters of Baja California where they mate, give birth and rear their young.
In December and January, the whales usually start heading south, moving quickly offshore as individuals or in loose groups. In February and March, the animals most frequently turn around and head north, taking their time and hugging the coast, often in mother-calf pairs.
Because the whales engage in the same journey every year, because they rarely stray more than a mile or two from land, it's relatively easy to view them along the way.
So easy, in fact, you can do it from shore, without ever stepping foot in a boat.
By Valentine's Day, there are so many whales in so many places that you can see them from just about anywhere. The Mendocino coast stretches for more than 90 miles, and any place you can get above sea level should give you a vantage point to catch a glimpse, so long as weather conditions cooperate.
Still, some bluff-top whale-watching locations historically have been better than others. Among the repeat winners from south to north: Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino Headlands State Park, MacKerricher State Park, Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, the Caspar headlands, Pomo Bluffs Park, Ten Mile Beach, Kibesillah, to name a few.
And shore-based whale-watching also is possible along the Sonoma County coast; the whales do not discriminate.
Most of the Mendocino County hot spots require visitors to watch on their own. Bring a pair of binoculars, field guide, picnic lunch or snacks, lots of layers to stay warm - and your patience.
A select few, such as the Mendo Headlands and MacKerricher, offer guided walks with spotting pros.
“At this time of year, you're pretty much going to see whales wherever you go,” said Kristin Gordon, a volunteer naturalist who runs the marine mammal program for MendoParks.
“If you want something more than just sightings, if you want a program that might teach you something or give you information about what you're looking at, you have to seek it out.”
One way to do that is by participating in one of the three whale festivals on the Mendocino County coast in March.
Festivals include activities such as guided walks, naturalist talks, art programs, beer and wine tasting and live music. The first, the Mendocino Whale Festival, takes place March 7 and is the biggest of the events.
A second festival, in Little River, is scheduled for March 14-15 and will feature kayaking trips and geocaching. The third is set for Fort Bragg and MacKerricher State Park on March 21. For information about all three, visit mendocinocoast.com/whale-home.
Gordon is heavily involved in planning these parties. At previous whale festivals she's been known to dress up like a whale. This year, she said, the MacKerricher festival will feature education stations where visitors can learn different facts about whales and conservation in general.
For Gordon, involvement in these programs is a labor of love.
“I grew up an animal lover in every way and (remember) numerous whale encounters back in a day when Mendocino was still a little hippie town in the '70s,” she said.
The first whale festival took place in 1976 and was designed to create a sense of community after a 1975 confrontation between the nonprofit Greenpeace and a whaling ship that was hunting whales off Point Mendocino.
“The more we can do to support these animals, the better,” Gordon said. “They are worth celebrating.”
Matt Villano is a writer and editor in Healdsburg. Contact him through whalehead.com.