Posts in whale watching

Dana Point Gray Whale Watching from a Kayak

September 23rd, 2014 Posted by Local Events, News, Uncategorized, whale watching 0 comments on “Dana Point Gray Whale Watching from a Kayak”

California Gray Whales are amazing creatures. They spend their summers chowing down in Alaskan seas then travel to Baja California to party and have kids in the winter, then travel back to Alaska in the spring. Subsequently, a large number of them pass within kayaking distance of Dana Point Harbor in the late fall through late spring.

The Gray Whale migration has three periods: southbound (late November to late January), early northbound (late January to early April), late northbound (mid April to late May).

During the southbound and early northbound periods, the Gray Whales are looking to get to their destination. The Grays pass outside the kelp beds northwest of the Dana Point headlands. They pass close to the San Juan Rock whistle buoy, then they head offshore, passing close to A Mark on their way south. They follow roughly the same path (just in opposite directions) on the way north.

Look for the Gray Whale’s spout and or their back and tail. They are kind of stealthy as they swim underwater for a couple minutes, then surface for three or four breaths. On the last breath, they often raise there tail out of the water (fluke). After the fluke, they will stay underwater for a couple more minutes. I can usually keep up with two or three of these cycles (3.5 to 4 knots). Gray Whales will also breach, come out of the water and fall sideways, or “spy hop”, come straight out of the water. This is thought to allow the whale to look around for landmarks. They do this a lot around the Dana Point Headland.

The following track has gotten me close to the most Grays during the southbound and early northbound periods. Start at the Dana Point Harbor entrance. Head 210 degrees magnetic to A Mark, approximately one mile offshore. At A Mark, turn right to 330 degrees magnetic. This will take you a couple hundred yards outside the San Juan Rock buoy (about one and a half miles). At the buoy take a slight right turn to 310 degrees magnetic and follow a line a couple hundred yards outside the kelp beds. Continue as far as you feel comfortable (the Ritz Carlton Hotel is about one mile from the buoy, Three Arch Bay is about two miles from the buoy) then turn around and follow the path back to the San Juan Rock buoy. When you get to the buoy, turn toward the mouth of the harbor and head in. This will give you the maximum benefit of going with the swells and wind for the final leg. About eighty percent of the Gray Whales I’ve seen have been within a couple hundred yards of this track.

During the late northbound period, the mother whales (cows) are taking their time with the newborn babies (calves). They swim in pairs and, often, in groups with other cow/calf pairs. They swim much closer to shore and occasionally stop to nurse and, it’s thought, show the calves landmarks that they will use to navigate on their future migrations. It is believed that the Dana Point headland is one of these navigation landmarks. That is why they often breach and or “spy hop” at the point.

The following track has provided lots of good viewing of northbound cows and calves. (Remember don’t get so close that you are harassing the whales.) Start at the mouth of Dana Point Harbor. Head to the green harbor entry buoy, about 1/4 mile to the west of the entry. Follow a line parallel to the harbor jetty, heading toward San Juan Rock. When you start to come across kelp attached to the bottom, you have a choice: 1. Go right and pass by San Juan Rock on it’s left or right, then continue past the Dana Point headland and stay inside the kelp beds as you go up the coast; 2. Go left around the kelp bed and pass close to the San Juan Rock whistle buoy, stay close to the outside of the kelp beds as you continue up the coast.

Often, I will be fishing just outside the kelp beds at the San Juan Rock buoy and the cow/calf groups will pass right by. So the alternative to searching for the northbound Grays is to just go to the buoy and sit. Eventually the whales will come to you. Watch for the whale watching boats and you should be able to tell when the whales are coming your way. If you find yourself directly in the path of a nearby whale, do nothing. The whales know you are there and will either avoid you themselves, or even come by to check you out. If you move you could disturb them more than if you just sit still. Remember, don’t harass the whales.

Note: Back in the commercial whaling days, Gray Whales were known as “Devil Fish” because the cows would so fiercely defend their calves. Now a days it actually seems like the cows want the calves to interact with humans. I’ve had two encounters when, I didn’t see them coming, and the calves swam right under me with the cow near by. Wow!


Dana Point Blue Whale Watching from a Kayak

August 27th, 2014 Posted by Local Events, News, Uncategorized, whale watching 0 comments on “Dana Point Blue Whale Watching from a Kayak”

Up to about the year 2000, a Blue Whale sighting at Dana Point was unprecedented or even unknown. these whales are thought to be the largest creatures that have ever lived on the planet. It’s to our benefit, the Blue Whales have now decided to make the Dana Point area one of their favorite summer destinations. During the 2012, 13, and 14 seasons, Blues have started passing by Dana Point in June, then settled in to feed in early July. They stay with us until about October. These whales are here to feed on krill (small shrimp) that live in underwater canyons, about two to five miles off shore and about a five mile stretch up and down the coast. I wait until mid July to go out to see them when they are feeding. They are too fast to keep up with in a kayak when they are passing through.

It may seem intimidating to look for whales in a kayak five miles out to sea, however, in a way, the Blues are easy to watch because once you find them feeding, they pretty much, stay put, so you don’t have to chase them all over the place. Just be aware of changing weather conditions and plan your trip to take advantage of wind and wave direction on the way back in. I spot a Blue whale from a distance by looking for the fifteen to thirty foot tall spout. Blue Whales rarely breach or spy hop. They are so big, though, that a good part of their back will come out of the water when they breathe.

Here is the track I use to look for Blue Whales out of Dana Point Harbor; it’s easy. Start at the harbor entrance, note the time. Head for A Mark, (210 degrees magnetic, about one mile out). When you get to A Mark, note the time again. Now continue on the 210 degree heading for an equal amount of time that it took you to get to A Mark. This will put you about two miles off shore. At this point, decide to go up the coast (preferable) or down the coast, whichever direction looks the most promising. Look for other boats milling about, this usually means there are whales in the area. Always try to begin your return to the harbor going with the wind and waves.

Of course, on the way out, if you see a whale, head straight for it. Blues are here to feed, they usually stay in the same area for long periods of time. Once you spot one, you have a real good chance it will still be there when you get to the area.

Watching a Blue Whale is easy. When they are feeding, they dive deep for about five to ten minutes. When their dive is done they surface with a prominent spout and make a lot of noise blowing the air out. They stay on the surface, blowing about every 20 to 30 seconds while, usually, swimming in a large circle for about five minutes. When they are ready to dive back down, they arch their back and flip their tails (fluke) out of the water to get vertical. When the tail comes up out of the water for the dive, this is called “fluking”. It’s fantastic to see and is usually considered the “money shot” of whale watching. Nothing is more amazing than being close to a fifteen foot wide, two ton whale tail as it silently slips below the surface to begin a deep dive. Now, wait five to ten minutes, and the whale will do it again.

Some tips: 1. If you are following a whale and there are a lot of boats slowly going in one direction, hang back a couple hundred yards, the whales often double back on their path and will come up much closer to you; 2. Blue Whales often travel in pairs, look for the second one too; 3. If you find yourself very close to a Blue, you don’t want to be under the spout water when it comes down; for such a magnificent creature, they’ve got really bad breath.

Remember don’t harass the whales; Blue whales are so big it is hard to imagine a kayak can harass them, but if you cause them to change their feeding pattern, that’s harassment. I was once hanging back from the crowd, as mentioned above, when a Blue surfaced right next to me (20 feet). He just sat there and looked at me for about a minute, about the time it took the other boats to realize I was getting the interaction of a lifetime, then he slowly moved away as the other boats came rushing up. I just sat there as the whale seemed to be saying, “make them go away”. I felt a little sad when he swam off, but I did get some great surface and underwater shots with my GoPro camera.

Note: Fin Back Whales will often be in the same area and behave the same as Blue Whales.




Alan Harkness – Dana Point Kayaker

Disclosure – I am not an employee of Dana Point Jet Ski or any other business that stands to profit from this article. I am a volunteer Docent at the Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center. All information in this article is from my own experiences and opinion. I am not getting paid to write this article.

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