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Itís Whale Migration Time

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, put the cable cars and Golden Gate Bridge on hold for a day. Get up to Point Reyes National Seashore now -- that’s where the action is! Point Reyes peninsula, just 25 miles north of San Francisco, juts out farther into the Pacific Ocean than any land for hundreds of miles to the north or south. When you stand in the shadow of the lighthouse at the end of Point Reyes, you are essentially miles out in the ocean, and that is why this is the quintessential place to see Gray Whales on their migrations. January is the peak time to see the whales moving southward; during March and April, on their return northward, the whales come closer to shore and may sometimes be seen in the surf.

When you look seaward from the Point Reyes headlands, you can see small pods of the whales moving steadily southward. They swim near the surface, spouting for a minute or two, and then submerge for three to five minutes, repeating this routine again and again. These pods belong to a population of 21,000 Gray Whales that leaves the Bering Sea in November and swims to warm-water winter quarters in Baja California, Mexico. The whales have come from several months of feeding in the extraordinarily rich waters of the Arctic seas. Unlike other baleen whales, Gray Whales are bottom feeders, and they scoop up unfathomable quantities of tiny, shrimp-like amphipods, among many other food items, from the seafloor. These behemoths, which can weigh up to 35 tons, have to lay on the blubber while they can, because they eat nothing during their 6,000-mile round-trip migration until they return to the Arctic again. For all or most of the winter they stay in the shallow lagoons of Baja, where the females give birth to their calves.

While the whale migration is happening at sea, Northern Elephant Seals are taking over the beach. The huge bull seals, measuring 11 feet in length and averaging 4,000 pounds, establish territories and watch over a harem of females. The much smaller females have come here to give birth, and soon the beach is replete with black-furred pups. A female suckles her single pup for about four weeks, in which time it gains about 220 pounds (over its birth weight of 100 pounds), while the female loses over 40 percent of her own weight as her blubber is converted to milk. When the pup gains it silvery pelage and weaning time is near, the males become rambunctious and mate with all of the females in their fold. The bellowing and other carrying-on are sights and sounds not soon to be forgotten.

After mating, the elephant seals take to the sea, where they spend most of their time underwater, hunting squid. An average dive for food will take an elephant seal 1,500 feet down and will last twenty to twenty-five minutes. On occasion, the seals go as deep as 3,000 feet and stay under for almost two hours! Their stay on the Point Reyes beach is a wonderful opportunity for humans to see these fascinating mammals. The surrounding Point Reyes National Seashore has over 71,000 acres of magnificent landscape. Plan your visit to see the big marine mammals and then take in some more of the seashore.