Traveling south out of Pillar Point Harbor, our March 11th whale watch trip began under blue skies. We spent the first 45 minutes trying to locate gray whales on their northern migration, but were not successful. No one knew the spectacular day of whale watching we had ahead of us.
At 9:50 am we spotted our first gray whale traveling north between our boat and the coast of Half Moon Bay. After repeatedly surfacing off the starboard bow, this whale dove underwater disappeared for ~4 minutes. Then, about 200 yards in front of the boat, the whale breached high out of the water.
With excitement mounting among the passengers, everyone speculated the whale would breach again. They were right. Over the course of the next hour, not one, but two gray whales repeatedly breached at least once every 5-10 minutes.
The whales showed a fairly predictable routine. Traveling
north, they would surface together and breathe every few minutes. Then, the
whales would both dive with one of the two usually returning to the surface
with a flourishing breach or spy hop (head out of the water).
Breaching is a rare event for gray whales during their migrations.
They usually elect to conserve energy for the long journey ahead. As we returned
towards the harbor, large splashes were still visible periodically on the
Over the course of the day, we saw 3 gray whales—with the
two breaching individuals capturing most of our attention. There were also
Brandt’s, Pelagic, and Double-crested Cormorants; Common Loons; Pigeon
Guillemots; and Surf Scoters throughout the day. Other marine mammal sightings
included harbor porpoises and California and Steller sea lions. This Steller
sea lion was on a buoy just before completing the trip back in Pillar Point
Chris Biertuempfel is Oceanic Society’s California programs coordinator for the San Francisco Bay Area. He also serves as photographer and documentarian on these trips. Chris holds a B.A. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley and is based in our office in Ross, CA.