Over the next three months, it's time to trek to the coast to catch a glimpse of gray whales during their annual migration. Thousands of the gentle giants are swimming along our shore on their way from their summer home northwest of Alaska to their winter home in the warm waters off the coast of Baja California. Mid-January is peak season for the southward journey and mid-March for the return trip.
We are suggesting prime vantage points for watching on your own, plus whale-watching tours with which you might get a closer vantage point. There are many choices, which you can access online. We're just getting you started. However, even with the best plan, there is no guarantee you'll catch sight of a breaching or spouting whale.
In Northern California, it's easy to go out on your own. Just head west to the Point Reyes National Seashore, Bodega Bay, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or as far north as Mendocino County. Pick a point of land that sticks out, such as a where a lighthouse is situated. Take your binoculars and dress warmly.
Our favorite vantage point is the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore. It's on a point that juts out into the ocean and offers a grand view up and down the coast. During the migration season, the park rangers run regular weekend programs near the lighthouse. (See details at right.)
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Other recommended viewing sites include, in the north, Bodega Head near Bodega Bay, Point Arena Lighthouse near Point Arena, Centerville Beach (west of Ferndale) and Guthrie Creek Headlands (southwest of Ferndale); and in the south, Big Sur (especially from the deck of the Nepenthe restaurant), Half Moon Bay, and Point Lobos State Reserve just south of Carmel.
Whale-watching boat trips operate out of many coastal cities, including Bodega Bay, San Francisco, Sausalito, Half Moon Bay and Monterey.
Near the end of the season, Mendocino promises spirited, informed viewing with whale-watching tours during its Whale and Wine Festival on March 4-5.
For the most part, all you need it a clear day, warm clothes and binoculars.
Viewing from Point Reyes
At Point Reyes National Seashore, park rangers lead one-hour programs about the journey of the whales on weekends in January, February and March. Visitors meet at 1:30 p.m. at the lighthouse shuttle stop of the lighthouse visitor center. Outings may require a half-mile walk. Visitors should get to the parking lot by 12:30 p.m. and dress for cold weather.
During the whale-watching season, the park operates a shuttle bus from the Drakes Beach parking lot to the lighthouse and Chimney Rock; (415) 464-5100 or www.nps.gov/pore.
The Oceanic Society runs 6 1/2-hour weekend trips Dec. 30 through May 14. The 50-foot boat can take up to 40 passengers (minimum age 10). It departs from the San Francisco Yacht Harbor, passes under the Golden Gate Bridge and heads up the coast. Passengers bring lunch and beverages; the cost is $75 to $78. The society also runs trips out of Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay; (800) 326-7491 or www.oceanicsociety.org.
* March 4-5: Whale and Wine Festival with whale-watching opportunities.
* March 18-19: Guided whale walks in Fort Bragg, or take a boat tour from Noyo Harbor: (707) 961-6303 or www.mendocinocoast.com, click on "events."