One of the best things about the Pacific Coast at this time of year: You don’t even have to get in a boat to go whale-watching. 

Instead, some of the best cetacean-spotting in the country can be done from terra firma—especially in Northern California and Central Oregon, where coastal bluffs provide stellar vantage points for the whale spouts, those mini-geysers that explode from the sea into mist. 

The whales of the hour? Gray whales, aka Eschrichtius robustus. These animals currently are engaged in one of the world’s longest migrations from the warm waters off the coast of Baja (in Mexico) to the colder, nutrient-rich waters of southeast Alaska. At this time of year, female grays that have spent the winter birthing, feeding, and rearing their babies make the journey home, teaching the babies all of the basics of being a grown-up whale. 

Because the moms are so cautious of predators such as orcas and sharks, they like to hug the coast and swim between their newborns and the open ocean, often sticking within 100 feet of shore.

Scott Mercer, a whale expert who studies grays, adds that the duos travel very slowly, often less than 5 mph.

This means there are dozens of great spots from which to engage in shore-based gray-watching. This past weekend, yours truly spotted a handful of whales traveling together just off the coast of Davenport, California, north of Santa Cruz. A recent piece in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat noted laypeople have spotted the leviathans off the coast of Sonoma County, too.

(FWIW, the bluffs of Mendocino and Fort Bragg are great for spotting whales, too. In particular, we love the views from the 100+ acres surrounding the Inn at Newport Ranch near Fort Bragg.) 

Although it’s possible to spot grays in just about any bay along the Oregon coast, the best of the bunch is Depoe Bay, which refers to itself as “The Whale Watching Capital of the Oregon Coast” and where whale-watching has become a leading driver of the local tourism industry. 

Our advice: Get out there. To maximize the experience, bring UV sunglasses, decent binoculars, a camera with a telephoto lens, and sunscreen. Happy spotting!

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.

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