Discuss the Pacific gray whale migration with any mother, and I almost guarantee she’s thinking what I’m thinking—swimming 10,000 miles round-trip to give birth sounds like a lot of work.
Whale watching season in San Diego is nearly year-round. The most popular time to go is during gray whale migration between the end of December and April. During the beginning of the migration, we can spot gray whales from the shore (usually in January and February) and there are pros who can take you on a tour out into the ocean.
If you choose either of these activities, your kids may have whale-related “why” questions. Sound like a genius by arming yourself with these fun facts.
Include this helpful map, courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps, that illustrates the gray whale migration route in an easy-to-understand manner for both kids and adults.
See also: Guide to Birch Aquarium
Easy Gray Whale Facts to Remember
- can reach lengths of up to 50 feet, with females measuring larger than males.
- live from 50–70 years, typically.
- are pregnant for 13.5 months.
- swim at an average of 5 mph.
- sleep or rest, according to scientists, in two ways. They rest with their blowholes exposed above water. Or, they rest underwater and come up for air every few minutes. Some believe that they do not stop swimming during migration and sleep while swimming on auto-pilot.
- have been observed snoring in lagoons.
- embark on the longest mammal migration in the world of 10,000 miles round-trip.
Gray Whale Migration Route
Gray whales eat bottom-feeding invertebrates in the Arctic. They, basically, turn on their sides and scoop up sediment from the ocean floor.
In the fall, as the arctic ice pushes south, the whales start to head south, too. During the journey, they feed opportunistically and by tapping into fat reserves.
Gray whales pass by the western coast of Canada, Washington, Oregon, and California on their way to the warmer waters of Baja California, Mexico, where they breed and give birth. The whales travel day and night at speeds of about 5 mph.
The first whales to arrive are pregnant mothers and females ready to mate. It’s thought that the shallow lagoon waters also protect the whales from predators, such as sharks.
Whales start to leave the lagoons in February to take the same gray whale migration route back up north. The last whales to leave are new mothers with their calves, who linger as long as possible (with some leaving in April and even May) in the warm water while waiting for the calves to grow strong enough for the journey.
By mid-March, many gray whales have reached Washington where they’re seen off the coast.
However, we have a few hundred rogue whales who hang out between California and Canada during the summer months. They’re called the Pacific Coast feeding group. For whatever reason, they don’t feel like heading all the way to the Arctic. I can hardly blame them.
How and Where to See the Gray Whales at Sea in San Diego
Gray whales start passing through San Diego waters in mid-December and can be seen roughly through mid-April. Our finest museums have partnered with local tour operators to provide unique, guided whale watching tours in San Diego that usually run twice-daily.
The San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) is a fantastic place to learn about animals such as the Pacific gray whale, so it only makes sense that they’ve partnered with Hornblower Cruises during whale watching season. Book winter gray whale tours and summer blue whale tours.
If you’re going out on the gray whale migration route, you might as well tag along with a naturalist from Birch Aquarium, the aquarium, and the public outreach center for the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Birch Aquarium partners with Flagship Cruises and Events for seasonal gray whale watching tours. Book Flagship gray whale tours.
You can also board the 139-foot America, a replica of the low black schooner famous for winning the historic Royal Yacht Squadron’s “100 Guinea Cup” (now known as the “America’s Cup”) race around the Isle of Wight for a special 4-hour tour that includes a guarantee that you won’t get seasick. Book Next Level Sailing.
Should you choose to view the gray whale migration from shore in San Diego, January is the month with the best odds because the whales migrate closer to shore as they head south. As they migrate north again, they usually swim too far out from shore to be seen from land.