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Gray Whale

Springtime Whale and Seal Watching
on the Sonoma Coast

Mar 28, 2018

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By Norma Jellison

Spring on the Sonoma Coast offers residents of the County, as well as visitors, many amazing visual delights - wildflowers everywhere, migrating Pacific Gray Whales, Pacific Harbor Seal pups, especially at the Goat Rock Beach colony, and birds in breeding plumage and sitting on nests on the rocks off the coast that are part of the California Coastal National Monument.

And, usually, spring delivers great weather to get out, explore, hike and enjoy all of the above.

Bodega Head, jutting out into the ocean, is an especially good vantage point to take in great views of Pt Reyes to the south, the Bay itself and the Doran Beach sand spit, Bodega Rock with its gregarious, noisy Sea Lions and the passing marine mammals and pelagic birds.

Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods (Stewards) Whale Watch volunteers are at Bodega Head Saturdays and Sundays Noon to 4PM (weather permitting, save Fisherman’s Festival weekend April 14/15 this year) from January to May to share information and help visitors search for whales.

Harbor Seals at the mouth of the Russian River at Jenner.Started over 30 years ago, both Whale Watch and Seal Watch at Goat Rock State Beach in Jenner were the first Stewards volunteer programs. Today, there are many more programs, along with classes, hikes and volunteer opportunities offered via their website:

Whale Watch volunteers share Gray Whale exhibits (whale bones, barnacles, whale lice, krill) and help visitors search for the Pacific Gray Whales migrating past the Head. The tell tale heart shaped, bushy blow rising up from the ocean surface announces a whale. Everyone gets excited hoping to see that again and again. And perhaps a view of some back, a tail or, if especially lucky, a full breach out of the water.

whale announces its presence with misty blowThe Gray Whales that were swimming by the Head going south in February and into March were juveniles. They don’t go to the mating and calving lagoons in Baja California, as they are not sexually mature. They will turn around and head north, as the lagoons empty out and the adults' northbound migration gets into full swing.   

The first whales to pass by going north are the newly pregnant females. They are headed for the Alaskan feeding grounds (Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas).

Gray Whales depend on blubber stored from the summer feeding frenzy to sustain them on their 5-6,000 mile migration south, the time they spend in the lagoons, as well as on the 5-6,000 mile return trip north back to the feeding grounds. They will feed opportunistically mostly during the northbound migration, inhaling krill or mysid shrimp for example. However, when they pass by the Head, for the most part, they have not eaten much since the previous summer.

Thus, the newly pregnant females are intent to reach the Arctic seas, where they will eat tons of amphipods (tiny benthic crustaceans) daily until the seas ice over. Then they will head back south to have their calves - 13 months later.

Most of the calves are born in the warm, high saline content (buoyant) waters of the lagoons on the Pacific side of Baja Sur in Mexico. Some are born on the way south, mostly off southern California. 

At birth, calves weigh 1500-2000 lbs and are 15-20 feet. Mom will feed the calf 50 gallons of milk a day (!) and teach it to swim. The calves double in size and weight while in the lagoons. When Mom decides the calf is ready, she will lead it north to Alaska.     

Mid-April through May is prime time to see the northbound mothers and calves from the Head. Swimming close to shore allows the calves to rest in coves along the way and Mom to easily nurse. Gray Whale moms nurse their calves the entire way from Baja to Alaska. This continues into August and September on the Arctic feeding grounds, by which time the calves learn to feed on the bottom-dwelling amphipods, along with the rest of the population. 

Keeping the calf between her and the coastal hills is also a tactic to protect the calf from predation by Orca. Although called Killer Whales, the Orca is the largest dolphin and uses eco-location to find its prey.

While the Pacific Northwest Orca (residents) eat salmon, the Orca ecotype Biggs (transients) preys on marine mammals, especially seals and Gray Whale calves. Keeping the calf on the inside of the mother Gray Whale (45-55 foot/30-40 tons) between her and the coastal hills “hides” the calf. If the Orca echolocates off her and misses the calf, it likely won’t attack Mom. 

Dolphins are highly intelligent and these marine mammal-eating Biggs Orca have become accustomed to attacking Gray Whale calves, especially in Monterey Bay. The Bay is deeper than the Grand Canyon, wide and has relatively no place to hide.

The Orca mothers teach their calves to hunt there and the adults are on the prowl as well. While the mother Gray Whale will often put up quite a fight, many Gray Whale calves are lost in Monterey Bay every year. Not necessarily a pretty picture for the passengers on whale watch boats, but certainly an example of how these highly intelligent dolphins have found and take advantage of an opportunistic place to successfully hunt. 

Luckily, we have not seen this phenomenon occur on whale watch trips out of Bodega Bay. We did have one instance of a juvenile whale carcass that washed up on Portuguese Beach a few years ago that had many teeth rakings on its body, suggesting the culprit in its demise was an Orca.

Gray Whales are slow swimmers (3-5 mph), hence they are covered with barnacles that give them a mottled look. Because Gray Whales don’t need deep water, they migrate fairly close to shore, especially on the northbound migration. This allows visitors to see them without needing to go out on a boat. On the other hand, local captains do take whale watch trips out of the Porto Bodega Marina at Eastshore/Bayflat Road.   

When Mom and calf swim past the Head, they are especially close, easy to see and take their time swimming by. To the delight of volunteers and visitors alike, this allows us land lubbers great views. And the calves seem especially prone to breach, much to the delight of all. Many visitors ask why do whales breach. In the Baja lagoons, it is likely mating behavior. On the migration, whether juveniles, adults or calves.....well, because they can!

Spend a few hours at the Head looking for whales, checking out the nesting cormorants, gulls, and oystercatchers, taking an easy hike looking for the wildflowers in bloom (iris, CA poppy, seaside daisy, and lupine among others). At the overlook look and listen to the Sea Lions on Bodega Rock. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy at several benches and picnic tables scattered around the Head. 

kayaks beached in Jenner

And then, perhaps head north along Route One past the Sonoma Coast State Beaches - 17 miles of spectacular coastline. Surfers may be visible in the water at Salmon Creek. The Kortum Trail beckons at Wrights Beach or Shell Beach. Perhaps explore the tide pools, at low tide, at several beaches along the way. Many rock outcroppings intrigue, including Mammoth Rock close to Blind Beach. Cross the Russian River at Bridgehaven and continue on to Jenner. The redwoods up the Russian River beckon as well, perhaps to ultimately complete a loop. The shops, cafe and Jenner Visitors Center are worth a stop. You could rent a kayak in Jenner and explore the river that way.

At the top of the hill just above Jenner, past Rivers End, dirt pullouts overlook where the Russian River empties into the ocean. The Pacific Harbor Seal colony on Goat Rock Beach is visible from this vantage point. Often Gray Whales can be seen in the surf line as well.

April and May are prime times to see Harbor Seal pups on the beach resting or nursing. Seals may also be swimming in the river or inch worming across the sand to haul out - rest and sleep after emerging from a swim. A couple hundred seals may be hauled out. Harbor Seals are nocturnal - they sleep in the day; head out to sea to feed around sunset and throughout the night; return to haul out in the daytime. Harbor Seals are colonial and have a strong affinity for the beach where they were born. 

harbor seals resting in the sun

Stewards Seal Watch volunteers are on the beach at Goat Rock from 10A-6 P during pupping season to maintain a safe distance from the seals and especially the pups, interpret their life history and assist closer views with scopes. The entrance to Blind Beach and Goat Rock Beach is off Route One before the bridge across the Russian River. Parking lots providing access. Goat Rock Beach access is through some sand dunes. Dogs are permitted at Blind Beach but not at Goat Rock Beach. A State Park Lifeguard is generally on duty at Goat Rock Beach during daylight hours, particularly in the summer and fall months. This is one of the Sonoma Coast’s most dangerous beaches due to sleeper waves and a steep drop off. The ocean is cold and currents strong no matter your skill as a swimmer. Never turn your back to the ocean or play tag with the waves!

Goat Rock Beach is often covered with hundreds of birds (gulls, terns, Brown Pelicans) enjoying the warm sand and sun. Water birds may be swimming in the river as well. This provides an opportunity to practice bird identification, whether from the beach or the overlook. A treat is if the Bald Eagles that have been nesting inland for several years show up and go fishing.

This Russian River overlook is a magical place, but then so is all of the Sonoma Coast. And there is no better time to enjoy its many splendors than in the April and May, when everything seems to spring to life. 

Pullout above Jenner Estuary and mouth of the Russian River - Goat Rock to the south               

              

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