Whale Watching…Sort Of: Point Reyes National Seashore

Mid January is peak California Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) watching season in the Bay Area, as they make their annual migration South. They will be back, bringing their calves along in a couple months as they head North into the Arctic waters to feed on plankton.

One of the best places to spot these magnificent creatures is likely Point Reyes National Seashore. During the migrations, the park receives so many visitors that the National Park Service operates a shuttle from the Drake’s Beach parking lot to the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock. The NPS also offers the use of their binoculars on the observation deck at the Lighthouse. However, hoping to beat the crowds, we had another spot in mind.

Packing a bag with warm layers, a blanket, and a thermos filled with hot chocolate, we headed for the Northernmost part of the park. Parking by the Pierce Point Ranch (check out the historic farm buildings and interpretive signs here) we made our way down the Tomales Point Trail.

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Bird Rock.

If you’re here and have the time, hiking to the tip of the peninsula at Tomales Point is well worth it. The waves hitting the bluffs below you make for a breathtaking view. Along with Bird Rock just off the coast, this is also an excellent place for bird and sea lion watching. Our goal, was not Tomales Point, but any spot offering a good view of the ocean and we found such a spot just a couple miles from the trailhead.

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The patriarch.

Plopping down on the grass, we added layers to ward off the chilly Pacific winds and pulled out our binoculars to start scouring the horizon for signs of the giant marine mammals. A herd of Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis ssp. nannodes) (Tomales Point is a Tule Elk Reserve) kept us company as they crept ever closer.

Soon enough, after maybe a half an hour of waiting, we saw them. The increased presence of what we can only assume were whale watching boats gave a good clue, but the jet of water squirting into the air was a clear giveaway. A gray whale made its way, lifting its head out of the water every minute or two to exhale the ocean water, and take a breath of fresh air. We were amazed at the speed with which the animal moved and within a few minutes we could no longer see the geyser as the whale seemed to head further out to sea, likely to the dismay of the watchers at the Lighthouse to the South of us.

Unfortunately, our binoculars, a pair of 8×25 Nikon Travelite Vs, were much under-powered for the job. While their size and weight make them a perfect companions on backpacking trips, we could not make out much whale detail; a gray water squirting beach ball. However, seeing one of only 20,000 or so individuals that migrate between Alaska and the Bay of California was still an amazing experience.

Making up for our inability to get a good view, was the display put on by the elk, now getting to close for comfort. They were driven closer and closer to us as groups of hikers coming down the trail would stop to take pictures, some walking directly towards the animals. The elk did not seem to mind us, possibly enjoying watching us as much as we enjoyed watching them, but suddenly we noticed a change in behavior.

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Three eligible young chaps.

The alpha male, with antlers larger than his body, started roaring at and herding his girlfriends. As we packed up and got up to move further away, we saw what caused this behavior. A group of horny bachelors approached. Not wanting to be anywhere near a potential elk feud, we hiked further down the trail and tried a couple more spots before giving up and hiking back.

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Looking down at McClures Beach.

Now close to the car, we were lucky enough to spot two more whales, three hours after our first “encounter”. These two were closer to shore and swimming side by side. They appeared to dwell near McClures Beach for a period of time, perhaps finding a snack in the area. We hastened our pace, heading towards the beach, envious of those individuals, if any, lucky enough to have been at the beach. They surely must have had quite a view.

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Seagulls enjoying the sunset.

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I love that you can make out the sunspots.

Unfortunately, we were still 20 minutes away and by the time we reached the beach, the two were long gone. We sat on a driftwood “bench” hoping for one last sighting as the sun finished its daily journey towards the horizon. Lack of another whale was compensated for with a gorgeous sunset.

We’ll make it a point to come back in March, maybe with some more powerful binoculars, to see the babies heading for their rendezvous with the chilly waters of the Arctic.

Another great spot to watch the whales is MacKerricher State Park.

For more national park adventures, visit our National Park Service Guide.

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