Whale Watching in Southern California- Boater Guidelines

Photo provided courtesy of GoldenStateImages.com (C)Randy Morse- http://GoldenStateImages.com

Thar she blows! ‘Tis the season for whale watching in Southern California. January, February and March are the peak months for the migration of the California Gray Whales, as they make their annual migration, into Mexican Waters. However, it is important to take great care when witnessing this amazing spectacle. In fact, all skippers need to be especially vigilant this time of year, even if you are not “whale watching”, especially when three miles or less offshore. I know one client who inadvertently struck a whale off Catalina.

If powerboating, it will be more comfortable and easier to locate whales in the calm morning hours. However, afternoon sailing is ideal because the lack of propeller noise is less disturbing to the whales. (Whales travel around 4 knots, so you may need to furl in the jib when following alongside.) The whales will be traveling parallel to the coastline, heading south/southeast. You may spot them as close as a mile offshore, up to 5 miles offshore.

Look for the characteristic “spout”, which is a misty spray, lasting only a few seconds before it disappears. Keep everyone involved in the search. Watch for other boats that may be following a whale. If there are only a couple vessels, you might join them, but don’t overwhelm a whale with a large group of boats. Better to find your “own” whales if you can.

Whales will usually spout three or four times, about a minute apart, before diving or “sounding” for 7-10 minutes. This is usually when you see the tail raised…have that camera ready! While waiting, hold your course and speed, but be looking 360 degrees for the whales when they surface. They often come up somewhere else.

Due to the increased popularity of whale watching, it is important that boaters use care and restraint, to avoid stressing or harming these magnificent creatures.
Guidelines for whale watching can be viewed online at:

In particular, look for printable brochure entitled: “Be Whale Wise, Marine Wildlife Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers and Viewers.”

A summary of these guidelines follows:

1. Be cautious and courteous in your approach, to the whales and other boaters.

2. Slow down, to 7 knots within 400 yards, and slower as you get within viewing distance.

3. Keep clear of the whale’s path. If whales are approaching you directly, cautiously move out of the way. Avoid abrupt changes in course or speed.

4. DO NOT APPROACH whales from the front or behind. Come carefully in from the side, gradually turning to parallel their course. Remember, the whales are trying to avoid being hit by boats…they don’t know what you are going to do. As the ocean water visibility is usually around 50 feet, they cannot see you…they only hear you.

5. Try not to approach closer than 100 yards to any whale.

6. If you find yourself closer than 100 yards, put engines in neutral or turn and sail clear.

7. Limit your viewing time to 30 minutes for a particular whale or pod of whales…in consideration of the animals, and other boaters. When departing, do so at moderate speed until well clear.

Good luck, and enjoy!

-Bob Sherman