Whales and Seals and More Whales, Oh My! Winter Wildlife Watching in Point Reyes
December 26, 2012Posted by andrew |
Late December always heralds the start of whale-watching season on Northern California's coast. Reports have come in of California Gray Whales (eschrichtius robustus) passing by the coast on their annual southern migration, so start planning your winter trip out to Point Reyes National Seashore to do some whale watching! We will probably still continue our tradition of never actually spotting one (although everyone around us seems to be seeing them), but that won't stop us from dusting off the binoculars and giving it another shot.
You're also just about guaranteed to see Point Reyes' colony of Northen Elephant Seals, too. While not as majestic as gray whales, these large and vocal pinnipeds are nonetheless a pretty amazing sight that's well worth checking out while you're in the area.
Whale Watching in Point Reyes National Seashore
Every year, California Gray Whales migrate from their feeding grounds in the waters off Alaska to their breeding grounds in the warmer waters near Baja California. This southern migration takes place from mid December through February, with the peak in about mid January. The return trip back north happens from March through May, with the peak watching time in mid March; late April and early May are great times to see mother whales swimming with their calves.
Probably the best place to see the whale migration is at the Point Reyes Lighthouse, since it's located at the point where the Point Reyes Peninsula juts farthest into the Pacific Ocean. Chimney Rock, on the opposite side of the ridge from the lighthouse, is another good place to observe. Due to the popularity of these spots, the National Park Service operates a winter shuttle bus program in the area on weekends and holidays, usually starting the last Saturday in December (this year it's Saturday, December 31) through mid April.
Point Reyes National Seashore docents will be on hand on weekends and holidays from 11 am to 4:30 pm with park-provided binoculars and scopes at the lighthouse observation deck; they're also happy to answer any whale-related questions you might have. You can also learn more about gray whales in the free ranger-led program "Journey of the Whales," which takes place at 1:30 pm on weekends and holidays; meet at the Lighthouse Visitor Center.
Other good spots to watch for whales in the Bay Area include the Marin Headlands, Bodega Head, Jenner, Fort Ross, Point Montara, and Año Nuevo State Reserve.
Point Reyes Elephant Seals
Whales aren't the only large migratory marine mammals to be seen out at Point Reyes. Over the past few years, the Point Reyes peninsula has become home to a sizeable population of Northern Elephant Seals (mirounga angustirostris). These huge seals can be found camped out on beaches around the area, particularly in and around Chimney Rock. You can catch a glimpse of the Elephant Seals at the Sea Lion Lookout on the way to Chimney Rock, and also at the Elephant Seal Overlook near the Chimney Rock parking area.
You can see the relatively small females as well as the extremely large male seals, which have a distinctive fleshy proboscis that gives them their name. They spend most of their time lounging on the beach, but can occasionally be spotted swimming in the water nearby. The male seals make an unusual sort of gurgling sound, so if you hear a loud sound that sounds like someone flushing a toilet in an echo chamber, that's what it is.
The Sea Lion Lookout is just off the road to Chimney Rock; park in the parking area and walk over the the fence and look over. There's a sheer drop of several hundred feet here, so needless to say, stay behind the fence.
Access the Elephant Seal Overlook via a trail located just off the parking lot at the Chimney Rock trailhead. Walk down the access road that leads to the lifeboat station and pier (authorized vehicles only), then turn left at the sign for the overlook. It's about a half-mile or so and ends in an observation area with benches and a nice panorama of the beach, Drakes Bay, and of course the resident Elephant Seals. The trail is easy and is suitable for families with small children.
If You Go
During the winter, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is closed to vehicular traffic south of Point Reyes Beach South, and the lighthouse and Chimney Rock are accessible only by shuttle bus, foot, and bicycle. Shuttle buses leave Drakes Beach every 15 to 20 minutes between 9 am to 3:30 pm, and cost $5 per person for adults and free children under 16. Purchase tickets at the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center at Drakes Beach. The buses operate in a loop from and to Drakes Beach, with stops at the lighthouse and Chimney Rock parking lots.
Those familiar with the Point Reyes National Seashore know that weather can be unpredictable there. The lighthouse, in particular, has a reputation for being one of the windiest and foggiest places on Earth! Dress in layers and make sure you have a wind-resistant parka or shell. Hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes are a recommended, since the whale viewing areas are located at some distance from the parking lots. Don't forget the binoculars!
Food is available only at Drake's Beach Cafe, located adjacent to the Kenneth Patrick Visitor Center at Drakes Beach. Drinking water is available at Drakes Beach and the Point Reyes Lighthouse only. All locations have restroom facilities.
To get there, head out to Point Reyes Station via Highway 1 or Point Reyes–Petaluma Road. Head west on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in the direction of Inverness. Follow Sir Francis Drake Boulevard out onto the Point Reyes Peninsula. Turn left onto Drakes Beach Road to go to Drakes Beach. If the road is open, you can continue on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard all the way to Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock.