Whale watching in Sonoma County California is very popular because there are so many easily accessible prominent high points from which to watch for whales. From Bodega Bay north, Highway 101 tightly hugs the shoreline and provides many handy pull-outs. The highway takes you straight through several parks as well including several county parks around Bodega Bay, Sonoma Coast State Park, Fort Ross State Historic Park, Salt Point State Park, and the Kruse Rhododendron State Preserve. No one is allowed to build on the west side of the highway so the view is totally unobstructed and freely accessible to the public!
All of the parks mentioned above provide nice restroom facilities, picnic opportunities, and other recreational opportunities to add to your whale watching adventure. Sometimes on the weekends at Bodega Bay, you can catch whale talks by the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. They also provide interpreters with spotting scopes to help find the whales and answer any questions you might have.
The number one spot for watching gray whales in Sonoma County has to be Bodega Head, the headland associated with Bodega Bay. Because of the topography of the land, this is the point where the gray whales tend to come the closest to shore. You can often watch the calves interacting with their Mothers which can lead to lots of exclamatory remarks if you happen to be standing in a crowd which can certainly happen on the weekends when hundreds of people migrate to this spot to watch the whales. Don't be surprised if the whales start to intently watch all those people on the bluff as they are just as curious about us as we are about them. It is a thrill to be checked out by a giant whale!
The favorite food of gray whales are krill. These are tiny shrimp like creatures which congregate on the bottom of the ocean in the soft sediment. When grey whales dive, they use their sieves called baleen to slurp up the soft sediment and trap the krill. This is the same food source they eat in massive quantities in the Arctic waters of Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea. It's also how they make their blubber.
Gray whales migrate more than 11,000 miles a year between the Arctic, where they have their richest feeding grounds, and Baja California where they mate and bear their calves. The Sonoma coastline just happens to be a favorite spot for them to linger a bit before continuing their journey. There are also sometimes a few year round residents in this area but there are many more winter residents further north at places like Depoe Bay, Oregon.
In general, the best time to spot the gray whale pods is in the winter with the peak being from about the middle of January through the middle of February. If you want to see a tail fluke, you need to look for gray whales that are actively feeding. Just before they dive deep, they will flip their tail fluke high out of the water. This gives them more thrust to get to the bottom where the food is! This is the point where you may be most impressed with their enormous strength! Remember, gray whales can weigh up to 45 tons. That's 45 x 2000 = 90,000 pounds! Their size and enormous strength explains why their only predators are the Orca whales and sometimes sharks.
If you want to see the whales as close to the shore as possible, then you want to wait until the latter part of the season. This is when the Mothers move with their calves and they stay much closer to shore than the males and the females without calves. This usually takes place around late February but the exact timing can change from year to year so it is best to ask some of the docents at Bodega Bay for up to date information.
Some recommended places to stay inlude the Bodega Bay Lodge, Bodega Harbor Inn, Inn at the Tides, Occidental Guest House and Fernando's Bed and Breakfast. Some people enjoy finding a place to rent so they can lounge on their deck, or better yet soak in their hot tub, and watch for whales from this relaxing vantage point. For this, you'll need a room or suite with an ocean side view. You can easily find this type of lodging in Sonoma County, especially around Fort Brag.
Now, grab your camera and go whale watching in Sonoma County California and enjoy these magnificent creatures!