Whale-watching season begins along Sonoma Coast

A pair of gray whales move north past Bodega Head as they migrate to their summer feeding grounds off Alaska in 2014. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/ PD FILE)


It was 27 years ago that Rich and Colleen Draffin met Bea Brunn for the first time. The couple, on a trip to the Sonoma County coast from the Sacramento area, were camping at Salt Point State Park, and Brunn was doing a shift at the visitor’s center. The trio got to talking, and soon they learned of a whale-watching program Brunn started in 1986 with the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods at Bodega Head, where state parks volunteers act as docents during the Pacific gray whales’ annual migration period.

The Draffins, near retirement at that point, figured getting involved sounded like a pretty good way to get them to the coast more frequently, and decided to sign on as volunteers.

This year’s whale-watching season, which began this month and wraps up at the end of May, will mark their 26th year with the program.

“The ability to sit there and talk to people who come literally from all over the world, who show up there and are interested in seeing this phenomenon of the whales migrating so close to the shoreline, ” Rich Draffin said. “As we have said amongst ourselves, we could do the whale watch without whales, but not without people.”

Every year close to 20,000 gray whales make the round-trip voyage from their summer feeding grounds in the waters of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas of Alaska to their winter calving lagoons in Baja California. January typically marks the start of the massive creatures’ southern migration, drawing keen observers to Bodega Head from near and far. New whale mothers’ northern journeys, with calves in tow, don’t start until a few months later, Rich Draffin said, giving them time to mature enough to make the trip to the Arctic waters, which can run between 10,000 and 14,000 miles.

All season long, docents for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods program operate on the bluffs each weekend, eager to talk with visitors about the whales and provide them with tools and reading materials about the population.

Rich Draffin, 74, and 73-year-old Colleen Draffin now co-organize the program with longtime volunteer Norma Jellison, and make the trip from their Sacramento suburb to Bodega Bay every other weekend during whale-watching season, staying in their RV at the Bodega Dunes Campground.

This year, Jellison said, more than 30 people have agreed to act as weekend docents out at the headlands, showing up at noon on weekend days not significantly marred by weather. Many of those volunteers have at some point made the same pilgrimage as the whales, spending time floating in boats amid the waters of their birthing lagoons, as the Draffins did many times during their early years as docents with the program.

“We go out into the middle of these large bays, and they just turn off the engine and we sit and float there with the whales all around,” Rich Draffin said. “What’s even more special is when we’ll have a mother actually bring a calf up close to the boat, close enough that people in the boat can actually touch the calf. That just does not happen in the wild. You can’t imagine that, of course, with a bear or a mountain lion or any other wild animal, but there is a curiosity and an affinity there that really makes it quite special.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or