Monterey Peninsula personal reflections photography whales wildlife

Gray whale migration passing by Monterey

Monterey is one of the great places in the world to be from late December through January. The gray whale migration is the longest migration of any mammal at around 10,000 miles from the summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea of northern Alaska to the winter breeding and calving lagoons on the western coast of Baja California. The gray whale migration is currently passing by Monterey, California.

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Gray whale spout seen from Point Lobos, California on December 26, 2014.

There are about 20,000 eastern Pacific gray whales and most participate in the annual migration between Alaska in summer and the west coast sheltered lagoons of Baja California, Mexico in winter. Along the coast of California there are volunteers who participate in gray whale migration census tracking. Typically about 2,000 whales are seen and counted from the California coast in December and January.

On December 26, I counted four gray whales in one hour seated on a rock at Point Lobos, one of three good locations for sighting whales around Monterey. Point Lobos, along with Point Pinos on the western tip of Pacific Grove and Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, the westernmost point of land on the Monterey Peninsula are the locations gray whales pass nearest to along the California coast around here. These three places are all about six miles from my home. Point Lobos forms the southern boundary of Carmel Bay and Cypress Point forms the northern boundary.

Whale watching from the shore is best with a good pair of binoculars and a zoom lens on your camera. These photos were taken with a 200mm lens. Gray whales are typically one-half mile or more from the shoreline.

Whale sightings are generally seen as a spray of water above the ocean surface as the gray whale spouts water from its blow hole. A gray whale is about the size of a city bus and the gray and white mottled body is usually visible at the ocean surface when the spout is seen.

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Gray whale spout seen in the distance off Cypress Point, Pebble Beach about three miles north of Point Lobos.

Seated at Point Lobos, I saw a gray whale spout to the north off Cypress Point about 3 miles or so away. Gray whales swim about 5 or 6 miles an hour on their way to Mexico and they generally do not linger on their southern journey. Although last season, on January 20, 2014 when staying at the Hyatt Highlands Inn, I photographed seven gray whales lingering for about 90 minutes in the cove in front of the hotel .

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Gray whale pod of at least seven whales lingering in cove on January 20, 2014. This photo was taken from room balcony at Hyatt Highlands Inn, Carmel Highlands, about two miles south of Point Lobos.

My sighting yesterday of the whale spout off Cypress Point, Pebble Beach turned out to be two gray whales traveling together. I watched them for the next hour as they swam closer to Point Lobos and past me heading south along the Big Sur coast.

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Spout of leading gray whale clearly visible and the white water splash to the right is the trailing gray whale.

Gray whales can dive for 15 minutes. A few days ago when we arrived at Point Loma in San Diego, we saw a whale spout within one minute of arriving at the viewpoint, but we never saw the whale spout again during the ten minutes or so we stared at the sea. I typically see gray whales spout every three or four minutes when I watch gray whales migrate south at Point Lobos. I was able to track the pair of gray whales by their frequent spouts as they swam south across Carmel Bay from Cypress Point to Point Lobos and past me.

My mother was looking at a boat in the distance when we were on top of Point Loma and asked if that was a whale. Boats create a wake and trail in the ocean since they ride along the water’s surface. Gray whales sometimes make a splash when they surface to breathe, but generally there is very little water disturbance and there is no wake trail to follow. They breathe and spout water, then dive again until they resurface for another breath of air.

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Adult gray whales are about 40 to 45 feet in length and comparable to the size of a swimming bus in the sea.

My photography style for whale watching is simply look for whale spouts with binoculars or my eyes and aim the camera in the direction for photos. The gray whales are simply lumps seen in the ocean from a distance. My whale photos taken with a Nikon D3200 from the shore of Point Lobos will never make it into National Geographic magazine.

My memories of sitting on the rocks at the Allan Memorial Cypress Grove in Point Lobos State Reserve the past few years are more precious than my photos. The opportunity to spend hours staring at the sea, along with other excited tourists from across the USA and around the world, watching the annual gray whale migration each California winter season makes me appreciate the bounty of sea life around Monterey. Each experience is special when I drive six miles south from Monterey and hike out to the western front of central coast California to observe some of earth’s largest living mammals swim by the shoreline. Late December and January for gray whale watching is a great time to visit Monterey, California.