Hyatt Hotels Monterey MRY Monterey Peninsula whales

In Monterey, January is gray whale watching season

One truism for my travels is I never feel too sad about coming back home to Monterey after a trip. The Monterey Peninsula region and central coast California is one of the world’s top tourist locations. Monterey and Carmel-by-the-sea attract a staggering number of visitors numbering in the millions for small towns with populations under 30,000 and 10,000 residents respectively.

January is an especially wonderful time of year to visit Monterey as the annual migration of gray whales from Alaska pass by the central coast of California on their way to the warm calving waters of Baja California, Mexico.

Generally, I start to spot gray whales in mid-December and then see numbers increase rapidly into January. This season, two weeks in Europe at the end of December, followed by near constant rainstorms since the beginning of January have kept me away from the coastline until a couple days ago.

A big storm this week even closed down Point Lobos State Park when I tried to visit five days ago. Pacific Coast Highway 1 was closed in a couple of places by mudslides from the recent rainstorm and is still impassable south of Big Sur several days later.

After the last big deluge Thursday, on Friday January 13th the skies cleared revealing remarkably brilliant clarity of winter light in our area. The Monterey area ranks near the top of the USA for low air pollution and clear days in winter offer breathtaking scenery.

I had to climb over a few fallen Monterey Pine trees along the paths through Point Lobos State Park to hike the north trail to Sea Lion Point, but the adventure was worth the effort.

The gray whale expressway is open for traffic.

Coastal sightings of gray whales is not like you stand on the shore and stare gray whales in the eye. Occasionally whales will come near the shore, but generally they are 1/2 mile to mile offshore and whale spotting is generally a ‘blow’ sighting when the whale expels air out its blow hole and a cloud of water vapor rises over the water.

gray whale blow

Monterey whale watching boat tours are popular this time of year. While it is incredible to get within a few hundred yards of the largest animals on earth, I don’t like the way several boats use radar and chase after whales around Monterey Bay. I prefer to watch gray whales unobtrusively from the coast as they make their annual migration to and from Mexico.

A Point Lobos park ranger told me whale numbers have been lower this year for December sightings. There are some whale census stations along the coast with one in Monterey County and another one in Palos Verdes, California.

I check the Palos Verdes ACS/LA GRAY WHALE CENSUS AND BEHAVIOR PROJECT site each season to get a general idea of the whale traffic down south. Last season 2015-16 sightings from Palos Verdes numbered 1,430 gray whales southbound and 2,541 northbound. As a general rule, there are more sightings northbound as mothers with calves tend to stay closer to shore on the migration back to Alaska.

The total population of gray whales on the north Pacific to Baja Mexico route is estimated to be about 21,000 whales. Only the fraction of whales swimming near the coast and during daylight hours are spotted. I typically spot about 100 gray whales along the Monterey County coast each season if I get out 10 to 15 days for whale spotting between December and February. Yesterday I saw around 7 to 9 whales in 4 different groups. It is common to see two or three whales traveling together. Sometimes I see a pod of seven or eight whales creating a Bellagio style whale blow show.

Last season the peak whale spotting week in Palos Verdes was Jan 24-30. Gray whales swim about 5 miles an hour, meaning the journey from Monterey, California to Palos Verdes takes about 3 days. The next three weeks should be fine whale watching days when the weather is good and the winds are light. When the sea is calm at Point Lobos State Park, whale blow can be seen along the expressway for ten miles up and down the coast.

Sea Lion Point

Sea Lion Point, Point Lobos State Park is prime whale spotting location just south of Carmel-by-the-sea.

The gray whales do not hang out too long in the warm Pacific water of Baja. By the end of February and first week of March the northerly migration back to Alaska is in full gear.

Besides whale spotting, I snapped a couple of cool bird photos on my Point Lobos excursion.



Great Blue Heron walking around on the coast.

Blue heron

And for readers who are more interested in hotels than wildlife, or want a hotel recommendation for visiting this area to see the wildlife, I leave you with a photo of Carmel Highlands taken from Sea Lion Point at Point Lobos State Park.

Carmel Highlands

Hyatt Carmel Highlands is nestled on the hillside, obscured by Monterey Pine forest, in the right portion of this picture.

InterContinental Monterey on Monterey’s Cannery Row was only $146 per night on Friday night Jan 13th when I took this Point Lobos hike.

When it is not raining, January is a terrific month to visit the Monterey Peninsula.


1 Comment

  • Nathan January 15, 2017

    I love visiting there too. I was at Point Lobos right after New Year. And no whale spotted. But my return trip at the end of the month, I am anticipating lots of sightings as you said. Also, just so much wildlife in Point Lobos. I saw a couple of bucks knocking horns, and sea otters too. Don’t forget to pack a nice pair of binoculars.

Comments are closed.