The California coast offers diverse habitats for species as they migrate up and down the coast, foraging for food or heading to their next stop.
Boating offers a unique opportunity to be on the water and up close and personal with the marine environment. California’s unique coastline offers rich habitats and generous food sources for migrating species as they make their way to their next destination.
Two major species boaters can see in the fall and winter are the gray whales and the green sea turtles, which utilize the coastline for food and protection from predators.
“There are two major species that are migrating off our coast in fall and winter, and they are often highlighted,” said Cassandra Davis, manager of Volunteer Programs at the Aquarium of the Pacific. “Those are the grey whales, and they start in winter, and we can actually see them not only in the water but even along the coastline so people on shore can see them as they migrate. And we also have our green sea turtles. They are often seen migrating in the fall as they return from their nesting beaches in Michoacan and nearby islands and beaches.”
The whales hug the California coast as they move to their breeding grounds in Mexico, and the green sea turtles come up to California to forage along the coastlines and in the harbors.
According to Davis, Long Beach is home to the northernmost known population of green sea turtles. They hang out and forage off the coastline, wetlands, and estuaries.
“The gray whales are migrating from their feeding ground up by Alaska all the way to their calving and mating grounds in Mexico,” said Davis. “This migration route is the longest known migration of any animal traveling 12,000 miles round trip every year.”
The whales spend their summers feeding in the Arctic before leaving the cold climate for the warm waters of Baja in September. Most whales begin arriving in the lagoons in December, allowing those on the California coast to see them make their impressive journey.
While seeing these animals can be an amazing experience, boaters should note the rules put in place to protect these species.
“The gray whales definitely tend to be closer to the shoreline, especially if they are traveling back up north,” said Davis. “They are hugging the coastline. So, it is really important that we are careful not only out in the open waters, especially as we are coming into shore. Some of the gray whales have spent time in the local harbor areas.”
Obeying boat speed limits and paying attention to animals in the harbor can protect them for future generations.
“They [green sea turtles] are along our coastline, especially near all those river outlets near bays and areas where you might see sea grass and other greenery that the sea turtles love to feed on,” said Davis. “So just be mindful of our speed as you are along the coastline or if an animal has been spotted, making sure we slow down as much as possible and keep our distance.”
According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, there is a 35-mile-per-hour speed limit in open zones while boating in California waterways and a five-mile-per-hour limit in marinas and harbors and if boating within 1,000 feet of the shoreline.
Being cognizant of your speed allows animals to notice you and get out of the way, protecting them from potential injury.
If you happen to be out boating and notice an animal is injured or exhibiting strange behavior, it is important to report it to the proper authorities.
“One great number to just have somewhere in your boat or in your phone 877-SOS-WHALE, and that allows for immediate reporting of whale entanglement,” said Davis. “But the people at that hotline can help with most other marine species if you spot any.”
When you call in, make sure to note the animal’s size, what behaviors you see, the details of the situation, and where exactly the animal is. Take as many photos as possible while keeping a safe distance.
The animals that take part in our coastal habitats play an important role in keeping our ecosystems healthy and thriving, and seeing them just off our coast can be the opportunity of a lifetime.
Several websites offer more information about the species off our coast, from the ones that regularly migrate off our coast to more rare sightings like transient orcas and basking sharks.
“Whether you are looking for more information on basking sharks or gray whales, NOAA Fisheries has some wonderful species references,” said Davis. “They have the latest data on recommendations for being safe around those species, as does the California State Parks and Boating and Waterways, as well as your local parks and marine systems. They will often have postings of interesting sightings and also information on how to be safe among these different animals.”