Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

Discoveries: Whale-watching at Bodega Head can be lonely, chilling

01/29/2012 12:00 AM

03/01/2013 12:34 PM

BODEGA BAY – On the edge of the continent – and hoping not to be blown over the edge and out to sea – Tom and Michelle Rouse sling binoculars over their shoulders, unfold green canvas chairs and hunker down at the jutting promontory known as Bodega Head.

They are in it for the long haul. They have come to watch the whales on their southern migration, a tourist activity that draws throngs each winter to this perch within Sonoma Coast State Park. They are not going to let 25 mph winds, with gusts up to 40 mph, deter them. They are hardy folk – and they dress in layers.

Already, the Rouses have seen a steady stream of whale watchers come and go, as if stuck in a revolving door. Others couldn't hack it. They must've figured, "Hey, it's a brilliantly sunny day, perfect to see those gray whales break the surface and spout on their annual migration to Mexico."

But the whipping wind has chilled them to the bone, ruined the ladies' hairdos and deposited sand and grit in their molars. They've bailed.

"You should've been out here yesterday; it was beautiful," says Ronnee Rubin, a green-vested interpretive volunteer. "No wind. We saw about 12 whales. Just gorgeous. Oh, and last weekend was even better."

Gee, thanks. Leave it to me to pick the wrong day to make the winding, two-hour drive from Sacramento to the granite bluff said to be (along with Point Reyes) a prime whale-watching locale. When it's windy, explains volunteer Danny Lester, the whitecaps on the ocean can obscure the spouting and make it hard to differentiate between waves and whales.

And, on this day, it is so windy that a small terrier nearly takes flight, so windy that volunteer Larry Tiller almost has the barometer wrenched from his outstretched hand, so windy that Veronica Jones wraps a red scarf over her mouth, buries her face in the back of husband Paul's puffy North Face jacket and pleads, for-the-love-of-God can they go back home to San Ramon?

It is, however, not windy enough to deter the likes of the Rouses. They have come from Sonoma to see whales and, dang it, they're not going to be denied.

"You've got to be persistent," says Tom Rouse. "You've got to think like a salesman. You make those 10 calls and you may not get any sales. But if you keep going and make that 11th and 12th call, you'll get that sale. You've just got to stick it out longer, especially on a day like this."

Michelle Rouse nods – or maybe she is shaking uncontrollably from the chill. Hard to tell. In any case, she concurs.

"I think it's funny that people drive 11/2 hours to get here, then spend 15 minutes and say, 'OK, that's it. Let's go eat lunch,' " she says. "Today is like a great test for (Tom). He's usually not the most patient guy in the world, but he seems determined today. We have a (competition) to see who asks to leave first. Last year, it was him."

Tom is part Ahab, part Willy Loman. He's in dogged pursuit of the whale and boasts a salesman's tenacity. Bodega Head is his Pequod and he's not about to abandon ship anytime soon.

After nearly an hour, the crowd thins noticeably. Even many of the volunteers doff their green vests and leave. The Rouses endure. Tom zips his black leather jacket and covers his head with the hood of his sweatshirt, layer three of four. He reduces all movement to lateral turns of head, along with occasionally lowering the binoculars to peer seaward. Michelle wraps a wool scarf around her throat, casually crosses her legs and metronomically flexes an Ugg-shod foot.

What is it, at core, that makes the Rouses and other whale-watching aficionados so determined?

For one, it's a rite of spring (well, starting in winter, actually) that speaks to the cycles of life – the whales head south to Baja in winter to calve, return in spring with offspring. Also, there's a certain grandeur of catching sight of something so massive: 70,000 pounds (80,000 if they've gorged on too much krill) and 50 feet in length.

In a flash, Michelle reaches over and squeezes Tom's arm.

"Look!" she exclaims. "Seals! A whole school of them."

Tom grunts. Not a whale, so he resumes staring off into the horizon.

"Maybe the seals will bring the whales," she adds. "Do whales feed on seals?"

Lester, the volunteer, says only orcas, not gray whales, dine on seal.

By this point, more than an hour in, only the four of us remain. Sand and crushed granite blast our faces, an unasked-for dermabrasion.

Suddenly, there is movement.

"Honey, my fingers are freezing – please?" she asks. "We can go to lunch, maybe come back."

Michelle stands, folds up her chair and puts away her binoculars. Tom, slow to respond, eventually relents and trudges toward the car.

It's down to me and Lester. We stand like sentinels for about 10 minutes, staring at nothing but whitecaps. Patience exhausted, I hand him my card and ask him to phone me later if he ends up seeing a whale.

"I was just about to leave myself," he says.

But he'll be back, as will the Rouses. The whales are too great a lure for people to be deterred.


Bodega Head, Sonoma Coast State Park, Bodega Bay

Hours: Daylight hours

Time of year: January through early May

Directions from Sacramento. Take Interstate 80 west to Highway 37 in Vallejo. Follow Highway 37 to Highway 101 northbound to Exit 479 (Railroad Avenue). Turn left on Railroad, right on Stony Point Road, left on Roblar Road, right on Valley Ford Road, which turns into Highway 1, left on Eastshore Road, right on Bay Flat Road, and continue onto Westshore Road.

Travel time: 2 1/2 hours

Reason to go: A prime viewing spot for the annual migration of gray whales as they make their way from Alaska to Baja California.

What else to do in Bodega Bay: Lunch spots, featuring fresh crab, abound. Check out the Bodega Bay Heritage Gallery (1785 Coast Highway), featuring the art and history of California between 1880 and 1950.

– Sam McManis

About This Blog

Sam McManis has covered travel and recreation at The Sacramento Bee since 2011, criss-crossing California to report on interesting, humorous, unexpected and sometimes truly strange stories. When he's not driving all over the state for work, Sam likes to run on the many mountain trails California boasts. Reach him at or 916-321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis

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