Whale-watching tours and festivals along the Pacific

LA Times | Travel

From the deck of a boat or a sandy shore, the California coast offers some of the best seats for watching the annual migration of gray whales. Starting now, you can gaze west and see gray whales break the surface of the Pacific, cutting a 7,000-mile route from the frigid Bering and Chukchi se...

By Hugo Martín // 12.12.08

From the deck of a boat or a sandy shore, the California coast offers some of the best seats for watching the annual migration of gray whales.

Starting now, you can gaze west and see gray whales break the surface of the Pacific, cutting a 7,000-mile route from the frigid Bering and Chukchi seas north of Alaska to the warm waters of Baja California to give birth to 1,500-pound calves. The behemoth mammals reverse course in the spring.

The year is already shaping up to be exceptional, with marine researchers and tour guides off the Central California coast reporting an unusually high number of humpback whales and orcas mixing in with the annual caravan of gray whales.

"There are more whales in Monterey than we've seen," said Steve Johnston, a training guide for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "It's stunning."

With hundreds of miles of shoreline and dozens of piers, boardwalks and commercial tour boats, Californians have plenty of options to choose from.

Here are 10 ideas for whale-watching tours and festivals offered by educational, civic and nonprofit groups.

The Oceanic Society (San Francisco), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting marine life, offers whale-watching tours from San Francisco, Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay. The Oceanic Society was founded in 1969 to educate the public about the effect of whale hunting.

On the tours, participants are accompanied by veteran naturalists and marine biologists who have been studying the habits and habitats of whales for decades. The tours from San Francisco Bay -- crossing under the Golden Gate Bridge -- last 6 1/2 hours and cost $100 per person on Saturdays and Sundays and $90 on Fridays. The tours from Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay last three hours and cost less than half the price ($45/$40). For more information, call (415) 474-3385 or go to the Oceanic Society website.

At the Aquarium of the Pacific (Long Beach), visitors to the largest aquarium in Southern California, home to more than 12,500 creatures, can buy a package that includes admission to the museum and tickets to a three-hour whale-watching tour. The deal starts Dec. 26 and costs $42.95 for adults, $28.95 for children (3 to 11) and $39.95 for seniors older than 60. (Adult admission to the museum normally costs $20.95 for adults.)

Before getting on the boat, visitors learn about whales by watching a film shown on the walls of the aquarium and at a kiosk where they can record their own whale imitation. For more information, call (562) 590-3100 or go to the Aquarium of the Pacific website.

The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (San Pedro) sponsors daily whale-watching tours, staffed by guides trained by the aquarium and the American Cetacean Society, beginning Dec. 26.

The tours depart from San Pedro and Redondo Beach. Admission prices vary, depending on the location. For more information, call (310) 548-8397.

At the end of February, the aquarium will also sponsor a weeklong boat trip to Baja California to see whales and calves in San Ignacio Lagoon. This trip is a one-time offer for 30 people who will sleep and eat on the ship. For more information on the Baja trip, call (310) 548-7562, Ext. 223, or go to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium's website.

Naturalists with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (La Jolla), one of the world's oldest and largest ocean and earth science research facilities, will lead twice-daily whale-watching tours starting Dec. 26 aboard San Diego Harbor Excursion vessels. The Scripps Institute was launched in 1903, and 12 years later opened its first aquarium, now called the Birch Aquarium. The tours start at 9:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and last 3 1/2 hours. Admission: $30 for adults on weekdays, $35 on weekends. Children age 4 to 12 pay $15 with a paid adult admission. For reservations, call (619) 234-4111 or go to San Diego Harbor Excursions website or the Birch Aquarium website.

The nonprofit Ocean Institute (Dana Point) specializes in marine-based field trips for school kids but on weekends visitors of all ages can join a marine cruise to look for whales, dolphins and sea lions, among other sea creatures. The tours, aboard the 70-foot research vessel the Sea Explorer, begin Jan. 11. The tours, led by institute biologists, run twice a day on weekends and last 2 1/2 hours. Admission: $35 for adults and $22 for children age 4 to 12. For reservations, call (949) 496-2274 or go to the Ocean Institute's website.

Hundreds of visitors are expected to attend the Mendocino Whale Festival on March 7 and 8 for the wine, seafood and whale watching in downtown Mendocino. After sipping wine and tasting some clam chowder, you can stroll a few blocks to the Ford House Visitor Center at the Mendocino Headlands State Park to look for whales heading south along the Pacific coast. Admission is free but visitors must pay $30 for the wine tasting and $10 for chowder tasting. For more information, call (707) 961-6300 or go to the festival's website.

If you prefer beer to wine, hold out until March 21 and 22 for the Fort Bragg Whale Festival, where visitors can sample beer from microbreweries from around the region. The whale watching takes places a short drive away at MacKerricher State Park and the Point Cabrillo Light Station. (Find a designated driver, or a cab, after the beer tasting.) Entrance is free, but beer tasting costs $30 and the chowder is $10. For more information, call (707) 961-6300 or go to the festival's website.

One of the biggest whale-watching festivals in the state is the Dana Point Festival of Whales on March 7 and 8 and March 14 and 15. The event draws up to 100,000 visitors a year and includes a parade, live music, a street fair, a car show and a volleyball tournament. A free shuttle takes visitors to and from the various venues.

The stars of the festival, the whales, can be seen from the Dana Point headlands or at the western end of the Street of the Blue Lantern, both a short walk from the site of the festival. You can also join a whale-watching tour from one of several charter companies in the harbor. Admission to the festival is free.

For more information, call (888) 440-4309 or go to the Dana Point Festival of Whales 2009 website.

In contrast to the larger Dana Point event is the quaint Redwood Coast Whale and Jazz Festival in the tiny community of Gualala, north of San Francisco. The festival, which runs from April 2 to 18, is held in the 15,000-square-foot Gualala Arts Center.

Throughout the three-week event, visitors can taste chowder, sip wine, guzzle beer and enjoy art exhibits. Visitors can hear free jazz but an admission fee (about $35) will be charged to see the headlining musicians in the auditorium.

From the art center, visitors can drive about a half-mile to the bluffs to watch the whales swim offshore. For more information, call (707) 884-1138 or go to the Gualala Arts website.

Each year, California State Parks sponsors the Point Mugu to Point Dume Whale Festival at Leo Carrillo State Park in Malibu. On April 19, visitors can enjoy live music, food booths, arts and crafts and children's activities.

Experienced naturalists are on hand to help visitors spot whales and bottlenose dolphins from the beach. Parking is $10 but entrance to the festival is free. For more information, call (805) 488-1827, Ext. 106, or go to the festival's website.

Martín is a Times staff writer.