Up close and personal

Every winter, the West Coast becomes a gray whale superhighway, and there may be no better place to watch the ocean giants’ journey from the Arctic to Baja California than off the coast of La Jolla.

Beginning in December as temperatures in Arctic waters drop toward freezing, gray whales travel en masse to lagoons off Baja to escape the cold, mate and give birth, then head back north in March. The gray whale is a coastal species and they stay close to shore for the entire journey, usually within nine miles, said Crystal DeSoto, head of Birch Aquarium’s whale program.

“Lucky for us, they stay pretty close to shore,” DeSoto said. “We go out to see them on boats, and you can still see the coastline. Other places in the world, you have to go really far out to see whales.”

Birch Acquarium is one of many organizations to run whale-watching expeditions out of San Diego Harbor. DeSoto said that some of the best whale watching in San Diego happens in the waters off La Jolla.

“For some reason, we have had really good sightings in La Jolla,” she said. “It might have to do with the deeper water in the canyons. Their predators would be in deeper water, so they really hug the coastline to avoid it. We can see them from the aquarium, you can see them from the Cove.”

The animals come so close to the La Jolla coast that an up-close-and-personal encounter with them is only a short paddle away. Hike Bike Kayak San Diego leads kayak whale-watching tours out of La Jolla Shores.

“We go just outside the kelp beds” over by Scripps Pier, said Amy Kangleon, owner of Hike Bike Kayak.

The company also offers tours of the cliffs at Torrey Pines, where hikers can watch the animals from land.

Experts are not sure what percentage of the estimated 22,000 Pacific gray whales make the annual journey, though it is believed that most of them do. Pregnant females are the first to head south in December, as they need to get to warm water to give birth.

They are followed by single whales of breeding age, typically 8 years or older. Juvenile whales are the last to leave, and some don’t make it all the way to Baja.

“They make it out whenever, and they might just pull off somewhere along the way to hang out,” DeSoto said.

The whales, which grow up to 45 feet long, travel at a speed of between three and five miles per hour. Most follow a fairly regular pattern of breathing and deep dives.

A whale will usually spout about five times in a short period, then take a deep dive that keeps them underwater for about five minutes. As the animal embarks on the dive, its tail, known as a fluke, comes up out of the water. More dramatic whale behaviors, such as breaching and lunging, are not typically seen as the animals migrate.

“They are kind of on their way somewhere,” DeSoto said. “Every now and then, you might get lucky and see breaching, but that’s not what you expect to see. If you see anything more than swimming and breathing, you’re lucky. When they get to Baja, that’s when the party is on, and it all happens in that area.”

Whale watchers off La Jolla can almost always expect to see something, however. DeSoto said that Birch runs multiple daily excursions for three months each year, and only on three or four excursions per year go without any whale sightings at all.

“We’ve never had a full day where we didn’t see anything,” she said.

Birch’s whale program, like many others, offers customers a free ticket for another excursion if they don’t see any whales. Kangleon said that even the kayak whale-watching trips, which are much more limited in how far they can travel, see whales two-thirds of the time.

Whales heading south are generally solitary, or sometimes travel in small groups of up to five whales. The whales depart from Baja for their trip back north in reverse order of how they left the Arctic.

“The juveniles and singles take off and the mothers are left waiting for the young ones to get stronger and build up blubber, so they’re stronger for the migration,” DeSoto said.

The new mothers travel closely with their newborn calfs on the journey back to the Arctic.

“The adults are up to 45 feet long and the babies are about 15 feet, so it’s quite a difference when you see them together,” DeSoto said.

The migration peaks around mid-January. Kangleon said that kayak excursions can sometimes result in extremely intimate encounters with the enormous creatures.

“Sometimes we get really close,” she said. “It’s an amazing experience, just because they are so big.”