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Half Moon Bay Gray Whale Watch Sightings: April 30 & May 1, 2016

By Chris Biertuempfel

Saturday’s cruise (April 30, 2016) had predictions of high winds but the intrepid crew of whale watchers embarked nonetheless, and were rewarded with a choppy, yet invigorating expedition. Double-crested Cormorants and other coastal birds were hunkered down in the sheltered safety of port, ruffled feathers fluttering in the wind.

Double-crested Cormorants. © Chris Biertuempfel

Upon reaching the open ocean, we visited a group of California sea lions piled lazily on a harbor buoy, blubber and fur insulating them from the buffeting winds. The relaxing sea lions greeted us with curious grunts and barks.

California sea lions resting on a buoy. © Chris Biertuempfel

As we continued south in search of gray whales, naturalist Nicole Larson described the migration patterns of these magnificent creatures and demonstrated the action of their baleen and feeding behavior. Within the hour, one of the sharp-sighted passengers spotted a whale surfacing in the distance and we cruised over to observe. It turned out to be a cow-calf pair of gray whales on their journey from the warm waters of Mexico to their feeding grounds near Alaska. We watched the whales surface, blow, and dive around six to eight times before leaving them to their travels.

Birdwatchers were thrilled to see various species soaring through the blustery sky, like this group of Western Gulls. In addition to the gulls and the Double-crested Cormorants, our expedition spotted:

One of 12 gray whales seen on May 1. © Chris Biertuempfel

On Sunday, May 1, 2016, whale watchers experienced a combination of clear skies and calm seas while spotting a number of gray whales throughout the trip. The group spotted 12 individual whales (6 cow-calf pairs) throughout the cruise.

A cow-calf pair of gray whales. © Chris Biertuempfel

The whales followed their migratory route from Baja California, Mexico, along the California coast, and towards Alaskan waters, stopping only for brief rests. Three cow-calf pairs ventured within 200 yards of the beach exhibiting nursing behavior while surfers, beach goers, and our whale watchers looked on. It was a magnificent display that everyone stopped to watch for the 15-20 minutes the whales spent so near to shore.

A gray whale blows just offshore. © Chris Biertuempfel

When the whales resumed their long journey, cow-calf pairs often traveled in close proximity to one another. A good part of our day was spent watching at least 4 whales on either side of the boat.

Gray whales alongside our boat. © Chris Biertuempfel

Whales were not the only marine mammals enjoying the warm weather as a motley crew of California sea lions occupied their favorite harbor buoy in a luxurious and slightly claustrophobic sprawl. They contentedly watched us as we watched them, and some even swam up for a closer look. Several harbor porpoises also made brief appearances on the surface before diving back down to deeper waters.

Birdwatching enthusiasts had an eventful day as passengers had sightings of:


Chris Biertuempfel manages Oceanic Society’s California-based programs, continuing the non-profit’s tradition of ocean faring expeditions that began in 1972. Also, he leads whale-centric expeditions in California and Mexico as a naturalist. His work as a photographer from such trips has been featured in several media outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle and ABC News.


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