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Where to see Gray Whales

Gray whale with baby

Looking for Where to see Gray Whales? Do you want to find out where to see Gray whales? We we have the perfect locations for you! You’ll be ready before the next whale watching season!

The gray whale, also known as the grey whale, grayback whale, Pacific gray whale, or California gray whale, is a baleen whale.

gray whale
Gray whale breaching. Image credit: Merrill Gosho

Baleen whales, also known as whalebone whales. They are a widely distributed and diverse parvorder( taxonomy) of carnivorous marine mammals.

Additionally, the gray whale is a remarkable migratory species in the animal kingdom. They travel in pods, with some of these colossal creatures covering a round-trip of 12,430 miles or 22,000 kilometers, journeying from their Alaskan summer habitat to the warmer waters off the Mexican coast.

Key Points

Key PointDescription
SpeciesGray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus)
SizeAdults range from 39 to 49 feet (12-15 m) in length
WeightAdults weigh around 30 to 40 tons
LifespanAverage of 55 to 70 years
MigrationUndertakes one of the longest mammal migrations, traveling up to 12,000 miles
FeedingBottom feeder, primarily feeds on small crustaceans and amphipods
Benthic FeedingKnown for unique feeding behavior called “benthic feeding,” where they feed by rolling on their sides
BehaviorKnown for their curiosity and tendency to approach boats
Conservation StatusLeast Concern
HabitatEastern North Pacific stock (west coast of North America) and Western North Pacific stock
Breeding & LifespanFemale gray whales tend to birth their young every two to three years. Lifespan is unknown, but estimated 75-80 years
PredatorsKiller whales are the main predators
Friendly Interaction with HumansGray whales have become known for their friendly interactions with humans
Best Locations to See Gray Whales1. Baja California Peninsula, Mexico
2. California, United States
3. Oregon, United States
4. British Columbia, Canada
5. Alaska, United States

Where to see gray whales: Top 5 locations

gray whale
Spouting gray whale Yachats, OR. Image credit: Sandy Horvath-Dori

Since gray whales migrate relatively close to shore, whale watching is very popular. Many opportunities are available for viewing gray whales from coastal cliffs and headlands or from whale watching boats.

#1 Where to see gray whales in Baja California Peninsula, Mexico

Mexican Pacific Coast from Baja California to Oaxaca.

  • Bahia de Banderas
  • Cabo San Lucas
  • Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos, Magdalena Bay
  • Nayarit
  • Reserve of the Biosphere El Vizcaino
  • Loreto Bay

Best times of the year to visit: November/ December- March/ April

Operators:

Whale Trips

Whale Watch Cabo

Magdelena Bay Whales

Baja Air Ventures

#2 Where to see gray whales in California

whale
Gray Whale Cove State Beach California State Park. Image credit: Raffaele Pagani
  • Palos Verdes Peninsula
  • Ventura Pier
  • Dana Point
  • Los Angeles County
  • San Diego
  • Channel Islands
  • Santa Cruz
  • Mendocino
  • San Francisco

Best time: California, your best time to spot gray whales and orcas is December to May. 

Operators:

New Port Whales, Los Angeles

Oceanic Society, Half Moon Bay ( San Fransisco )

Newport Whales, Newport Landing

#3 Where to see gray whales in Oregon

oregon whale
Gray whale in Oregon, US. Image credit: Nicki Dugan Pogue

The most common whale off the Oregon coast is the gray whale. In addition to the approximately 200 resident gray whales that live nearly year-round off Oregon, a winter and spring migration brings a magnificent number of up to 18,000 gray whales along the coastline.

For some of the biggest views in the state, Cape Perpetua State Scenic Area is the place to recommend uninterrupted views, especially for breathtaking whale-watching!

Best Times: Mid December- Mid January

Operators:

Eco Tours of Oregon

Whale trips: Pacific Northwest

#4 Where to see Gray Whales in Canada

gray whale
Image credit: Kimon Berlin

The reach of the gray whales in Canada: Coast of British Columbia to the top of Alaska. The west coast is most famous for viewing the gray whales as they migrate close to the Vancouver Island shore in the spring and fall. On a calm day it is possible to watch whales pass by from the many beaches and trails that extend along much of the coast between Ucluelet and Tofino.

Notable Mention: The province of Newfoundland and Labrador, bordering Canada’s Atlantic coast, is widely regarded as one of the finest whale-watching spots worldwide!

Best time to visit: June- July

Operators:

Orca Dreams

Tofino whale centre

Whale Trips: British columbia

#5 Where to see Gray whales in Alaska

whale
Image credit: Frank K

During summer, Gray Whales be found almost everywhere along Alaska’s coast, from Southeast to the Bering Sea, including Gulf of Alaska areas close to Anchorage.

The best time to whale watch:  April – November

Operators:

Major Marine

Travel Juneau

Characteristics

CharacteristicDescription
SizeAdults range from 39 to 49 feet (12-15 m) in length
WeightAdults weigh around 30 to 40 tons
LifespanAverage of 55 to 70 years
MigrationUndertakes one of the longest mammal migrations, traveling up to 12,000 miles
FeedingBottom feeder, primarily feeds on small crustaceans and amphipods
Benthic FeedingKnown for unique feeding behavior called “benthic feeding,” where they feed by rolling on their sides
BehaviorKnown for their curiosity and tendency to approach boats
Conservation StatusLeast Concern

Size & Appearance

The size of a Gray whale compared to that of a human.

Gray Whales remains the large baleen whales. These whales are of moderate size, growing to a maximum length of 49 feet (15 meters), typically with females surpassing males in size.

Appearance: Grey along with white patches, covered in barnacles and sea lice. These whales have been seen bearing an average of more than 400 pounds or 180 kilograms of barnacles and whale lice. Unlike many other whale species, gray whales lack dorsal fins. Instead, they sport a sometimes noticeable low hump along their back.

Diet/ Feeding

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwBM_hHQv-M

Gray whales sits uniquely at bottom-feeding animals. They roll on their side and suck up sediment while slowly swimming along the seafloor. And during their summer, can spend up to 20 hours feeding in arctic waters. So it is very unlikely to hurt humans, but if you want to read about an encounter between a whale and two kayakers, check out one of our other articles.

Habitat

Gray whales above the equator are divided into two geographic distributions: the eastern North Pacific stock, located along the west coast of North America, and the western North Pacific stock is located along the eastern Asian coastline.

a map showing where to see gray whales
Where to see gray whales; The whales’ annual migration path

The majority of gray whales from the eastern North Pacific stock feed in the northern Bering and Chukchi Seas during the summer. However, a portion of these whales also feed along the Pacific coast in summer, ranging from Southeast Alaska down to Northern California, encompassing waters off British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.

North Atlantic populations were extinct on the European coast before 500 AD, and on the American coast around the late 17th to early 18th centuries. Yet there have been recent sightings of whales along the Mediterranean sea, suggesting a repopulation in breeding grounds that were previously abandoned for centuries. 

In May and June 2013, a gray whale was sighted off the coast of Namibia, the first confirmed sighting in the Southern Hemisphere. This has indicated that new patterns of migration may be arising for these whales. The round-trip journey of one gray whale has set a new record for the longest mammal migration, covering a distance of more than 22,000 kilometers across the Pacific Ocean.

Migration

In summer, they reside in the Arctic, feeding on bottom-dwelling organisms. With reduced sunlight and food in fall and colder waters, they migrate along the coast to Baja California, Mexico.

Breeding & Lifespan

Female gray whales usually give birth every two to three years. At 5-12 years they reach sexual maturity and give birth to single calf after 12-13 months. Mothers and calves remain close to shore during the northward migration (usually within 200m of the coast), possibly trying to avoid killer whale attacks.  The calves spend up to 8 months under the protection of their mothers.

Mothers are very protective, sometimes sacrificing their lives to predating killer whales, in order to protect their calves.

The average and maximum lifespan of gray whales is unknown, although one female was estimated to be 75 to 80 years old.

Behavior/ Nature

whale
Gray Whale at Depoe Bay. Image credit: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

Gray whales turn out to be slower swimmers, despite the distance of migration so killer whales are a common predator. Gray whales were once known as “devil fish” due to their aggressive nature encountering humans who tried to harpoon the whales. However since then have been known to be the friendliest gentle giants of the sea. They usually Travel alone or in small groups besides when feeding or breeding.

Conservation

Gray whales neared extinction due to extensive hunting. Initially, the discovery of their breeding grounds in the late 1800s resulted in devastating losses as whalers killed many, making hunting unprofitable and enabling their population to rebound.

However, advancements in harpooning technology and factory ships the period between 1900 and 1910 caused a renewed and intensified hunting, leading to a sharp decline to possibly less than 2,000 whales. An international agreement in 1946 halted hunting, aiding the species’ recovery, although the North Pacific population sadly went extinct, likely due to past excessive hunting.

Current Threats

Predators: The most frequent predators of gray whales, particularly calves, are killer whales.  Many gray whales display killer whale tooth rake scars and disfigurements on their bodies; particularly on their tail flukes.  Attacks are not always fatal, but pods of killer whales regularly attack, kill and consume gray whales, targeting calves, on migration as well as in summer feeding areas.

Anthropogenic/ Human threats: Gray whales portray vulnerable to accidental entanglement in fishing gear.  The feeding grounds of western gray whales are directly positioned within significant oil and gas fields along the Russian coast, raising considerable concerns about the potential effects of oil and gas exploration and production on the gray whale population and their habitat.

whale
Image credit: Carlos Valenzuela

5 things that make a gray whale special

  • 1. Longest mammal migration 22 000 km trip from Alaska to California Mexico for breeding.
  • 2. Their only predator (other than humans) is the orca, which has been documented separating mother/calf pairs during their migration.
  • 3. Mother and calves have a very close bond.
  • 4. They are the only baleen whales that are bottom feeders.
  • 5. Behavior- once known as devil fish but now gentle giants because of the amazing interactions they have with humans.
YouTube video

Are Gray Whales friendly?

With the end of whaling, most Gray Whales have become best known for their friendly interactions with humans. They generally seem undisturbed by kayakers, even when with calves. In the birthing lagoons, some whales have begun to approach small vessels and allow themselves to be touched by humans, a behavior first reported in 1976. After whaling, whales became friendly to passers by and have even been known to come close to coastline as gentle giants roaming shallow waters

They may even be known as the friendliest whale of all.

Can you interact with whales?

where to see grey whales who are the friendliest whales

Despite the gray whale being the friendliest of the gentle giants, it is important to take this into consideration: Generally, swimming with whales is illegal, dangerous and a bad idea to approach this large marine mammals. It is even worse to go close to their calves. Mothers are very protective over their calves.

To take precaution:

Disturbance from Whale Watching Activities

Whale watching has become an important recreational industry in several communities along the North American coast from British Columbia, Canada, to the gray whale populated waters of Baja California, Mexico.

Whale watching along this route may lead to disturbance and affect gray whale behavior and therefore it is of utmost importance that tourists and operators practice sustainable methods of tourism.

Image credit: NOAA Office of NOAA Corps Operations

How to practice ethical and sustainable tourism :

  • Keep a distance and limit watching time when in proximity to whales.
  • Report marine life being disturbed or whales in distress.
  • Reduce speed of sea vessel and be on the lookout for marine animals.
  • Report a violation to local marine protection ( National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)) .

Summary on Where to see Gray Whales

whale
Image credit: National Marine Sanctuaries

Has this whale left you in its awe after learning about its incredible migration, friendly nature, and triumphant growth in population after a history of harpooning? These gentle giants are a privilege to witness along their annual migration.

May we continue to celebrate and acknowledge how special gray whales are, following steps to make sure activities of whale watching are always sustainable and ethical.

If you are an avid whale watcher and enjoyed reading about the best places to see Gray whales, have a look at our whales category that features blogs about all Whales, Fin and Orca Whales.

Revealing all the best tips and secrets about when and where to see these whales of the world! Enjoy!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: Where can I see Gray Whales?
A1: Gray Whales can be seen in locations such as the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico, California and Oregon coasts in the United States, British Columbia in Canada, and Alaska in the United States.

Q2: When is the best time to see Gray Whales?
A2: The best time to see Gray Whales varies, but the migration season is generally from November to April. The peak sightings usually occur during December to March.

Q3: Are Gray Whales friendly?
A3: Gray Whales have become known for their friendly interactions with humans. They are generally undisturbed by kayakers and have been observed approaching small vessels and allowing themselves to be touched.

Q4: What is the feeding behavior of Gray Whales?
A4: Gray Whales lie at the bottom feeders and engage in a feeding behavior known as “benthic feeding.” They roll on their side and suck up sediment while slowly swimming along the seafloor, primarily feeding on small crustaceans and amphipods.

Q5: What are the main predators of Gray Whales?
A5: The main predator of Gray Whales is the killer whale (orca). They are known to target gray whale calves during migration and in summer feeding areas.

Q6: How long is the migration of Gray Whales?
A6: Gray Whales undertake one of the longest mammal migrations, traveling up to 12,000 miles round-trip from their summer home in Alaskan waters to the warmer waters off the Mexican coast.

Q7: What is the conservation status of Gray Whales?
A7: Gray Whales are currently listed as “Least Concern” on the conservation status scale. However, they have faced threats in the past, including whaling activities that severely impacted their population.

Q8: How long do Gray Whales live?
A8: The average lifespan of Gray Whales is estimated to be between 55 and 70 years. However, the exact lifespan is not well-known. One female Gray Whale was estimated to be 75 to 80 years old.

Q9: Can I swim or interact with Gray Whales?
A9: Swimming or interacting with Gray Whales is generally not recommended. It is illegal, dangerous, and can disturb the whales. Mother whales are especially protective of their calves, and approaching them closely can be harmful to both the whales and humans.

Q10: How have Gray Whales recovered from endangerment?
A10: Gray Whales were heavily hunted in the past, leading to a significant decline in their population. However, international agreements were put in place in 1946 to protect Gray Whales, which resulted in their recovery. They have since rebounded, and their conservation status has improved.

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