Winter Wonders: Seasonal Migrations

The winter and early spring months bring migrating ocean mammals to the local coast, providing prime viewing opportunities on both land and sea. While you’re watching, keep your eye out for other marine animals, including orcas, sea otters, California sea lions, harbor seals, and dolphins.

Close encounters of an unusual kind

One of Northern California’s beaches is famed as a home to elephant seals, so named because of their size and males’ long, pendulous noses. These animals spend most of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to molt, give birth, and mate each winter. Located about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, Año Nuevo State Reserve is one of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world for these huge seals. Take a naturalist-led tour during the breeding season (December through March) for extraordinarily close views of these fascinating mammals. The three- to four-mile walks over rolling sand dunes last 2.5 hours and are considered moderately strenuous; you may see males battling for mates on the beaches, or females giving birth to their pups on the dunes. Most of the adult seals are gone by early March, leaving behind the weaned pups, who remain through April. The adult elephant seals return to Año Nuevo’s beaches later in the year to molt. The park is open for guided walks only from December 15 through March 31 (reservations required). At other times of the year (except December 1–14 when the park is closed), visitors can obtain permits to wander on their own and enjoy the beautiful white sand of Cove Beach. For reservations, call 800-444-4445.

Whale Watching

The annual gray whale migration is one of the most magnificent and accessible wildlife spectacles. Beginning in December, these majestic marine mammals start their annual southern migration from their frigid Artic feeding grounds to the lagoons of sunny Baja California, where they breed and nurse their young until heading north again in the spring with their calves. Their migration pathway follows the California coast closely, providing opportunities for whale spotting from the cliffs between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay. Bundle up in warm clothes, find yourself a relaxing spot, and enjoy a picnic while scanning the sea for the telltale sign of their spouts. To see them at closer range, board a charter boat. From Santa Cruz, options include Stagnaro Charter Boats (831-427-2334), Chartle Charters (831-336-2244), and Santa Cruz Whale Watching (831-427-0230). From Half Moon Bay, charter services departing from Pillar Point Harbor can be booked at The New Captain Pete (650-726-6224) or on a choice of three boat operations at Half Moon Bay Sportfishing & Tackle (650-728-3377). The Oceanic Society (800-326-7491) also offers naturalist-led whale-watching trips from Pillar Point Harbor.