Whale Watching From a Kayak – Gray Whales in Trinidad Harbor

by Nancy Soares on June 4, 2018

I borrowed this image by Konraad Wothe from the National Geographic website on gray whales

I borrowed this image by Konrad Wothe from the National Geographic website on gray whales. We didn’t get this close!

On May 8 I went kayaking with whales. Because it was a spur of the moment decision I didn’t go over to the coast and spend the night as I’ve done before so it was necessary to leave at about 3:30 am in order to get to Trinidad Harbor by 8. I love the drive though, going through the redwoods and down the coast. It’s stunningly beautiful and with a fat cup of coffee to keep me company it was no problem. I signed up for a commercial tour with Jason Self and Nick Gadouas of Kayak Trinidad and highly recommend the experience to everyone.

Trinidad

Trinidad

Jason and Nick provided the tour group with all the necessary equipment, including wetsuits, booties, PFDs and Werner paddles. They even have spare dry bags in case people need them. The kayaks they use are Venture Islay 14s, Wilderness Systems Tsunami 145s, and WS Polaris 180 tandems. They also have WS sit on tops for larger people. Our fearless leader, Jason Self, has been running tours in Trinidad for 5 years, but he has been guiding for 12 years and kayaking for 17. Jason thoroughly briefed the group on equipment, paddle technique, and what to do if you tip over and fall out of the boat. His instructions were clear and easy to follow. I brought my own stuff because it’s easy and that’s just how I am, but it was interesting to see how the tours are put together for other paddlers. Jason also cautioned us to stay close together both for our own safety and so we didn’t accidentally cut the whales off in their path.   

Jason gives us the 411.

Jason gives us the 411.

In addition, Jason explained the 100-yard marine mammal rule. You must stay 100 yards away from all marine mammals, but they will often come to you in which case you just stay still and let them do their thing. Jason emphasized that at this time of year there are not only whale mamas and their babies but also harbor seals were giving birth to their pups and they were all over the rocks in the harbor. We were careful not to disturb them by getting too close.

Searching for whale sign

Searching for whale sign

There were some grays at the edge of the harbor right when we launched, but they had already done their feeding for the day and were swimming out around Trinidad Head. They have a pattern of coming in to Clam Beach to the south and then slowly moseying up the coast feeding close to shore before peeling off to the west and going around, although Jason told us that a few days previously his group had seen whales right in the harbor around the crab pots.

Jason with Trinidad Head in the background

Jason scouting for whales with Trinidad Head in the background.

The reason the whales come so close to shore is to avoid attack by orcas. Migrating grays can travel as far as 12,430 miles round-trip from their summer home in Alaskan waters to the warmer waters off Baja in Mexico where they winter. When the grays go south they’re usually miles out to sea, but on the return they have their calves with them and to protect them they hug the shoreline. Gray whales are often covered with parasites and other organisms that make their snouts and backs look like a crusty ocean rock. I saw the back of one whale surfacing just a few yards away, all pink and knobbly. More pink than gray to me, it reminded me of the pink you see in sea caves.   

Sea life. Notice the pink color on the rocks, similar to what I saw on the back of the whale.

Sea stars. Notice the pink color on the rocks, similar to what I saw on the back of the whale. In fact, the whale back looked a lot like the humps on the rock! 

With all his experience guiding whale watching tours at this spot, Jason had a plan. We paddled out past a big red buoy and paused to assess the situation. Looking south we saw spouts way down by Clam Beach, about 2.5 miles to the south, so we paddled slowly toward them hoping they’d come to us. 

Right in the center of the photo you can see an almost perfect heart.coming up off the water

Right in the center of the photo you can see an almost perfect heart-shaped spout coming up off the water.

There must have been pretty good feeding down there because they didn’t come to us, so we began slowly paddling toward the beach keeping a sharp eye out to see if they would start heading our way. They stayed put, though, and we ended up going almost all the way to the beach where we found a big pod. We watched them feed and roll and blow for about 45 minutes. It was amazing! When they roll you can see their pectoral fins. A couple of times it looked like they were waving at us. One of the cool things I learned about gray whales is that they have two blow holes so that when they spout it comes up like a heart. I was lucky enough to get two shots of the heart-shaped blow with my camera. They look far away but you can still see the heart above the water.

Another heart. It's a little wispy, but you can see the whale too.

Another heart. It’s a little wispy, but you can see the whale too.

Finally the pod started to move. They came and visited us close up and then swam beside our group all the way back to the harbor for about an hour. Epic! While we paddled leisurely alongside the feeding pod Jason told us about grays and their habits. One thing I learned is that the moms and babies swim together so close they actually touch. We saw this many times. You’d see a big back and then a little bit behind and to the side you’d see a little back. There would be a big spout and then right afterwards a little spout. It was so cute!

It's incredible to think those giant animals get so close to the rocks and in such shallow water

It’s incredible to think these giant animals get so close to the rocks and in such shallow water.

The gray whale uses its snout to forage by dislodging tiny creatures from the seafloor. It then filters these morsels with its baleen—a comblike strainer of plates in the upper jaw. The whales will also rub their bodies on the rocks to remove stuff to eat which they then strain out of the water. We saw several grays get right up to the rocks, in one place in about 6 feet of water which is amazing when you realize how big they are. Gray whales get up to 40 to 50 feet long and weigh 30 to 40 tons when mature. Their size is relative to a bus. 

Couldn't believe this guy let me get so close!

More wildlife. Couldn’t believe this pelican let me get so close!

The whole tour was three hours long, and we paddled about 6 miles round trip. As for weather, we had glassy water, sun, some light rain, and incredible cloud formations. The air temperature was warm but the water seemed quite cold and was incredibly clear that day. When we returned to the beach I packed my gear and headed back to Ashland, another 4 hour drive, but I was so stoked by the experience it seemed like nothing. That evening and all the next day as I put together this post I felt energized. It was good to be alive and to experience these amazing animals so close up. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. 

The sea stacks alone make this a great place to paddle.

The sea stacks alone make this a great place to paddle.

Thank you to Jason Self and Kayak Trinidad for a wonderful day. To sign up for a tour, contact https://kayaktrinidad.com/ They also do tours of Big Lagoon, handline kayak fishing, and sea kayak instruction and rolling, plus they have rentals. For more Tsunami Ranger adventures with whales, check out Steve King’s wild experience being chomped by a whale at https://tsunamirangers.com/2016/09/05/baleen-bruises-and-beer-or-the-whale-that-mistook-my-x-15-for-a-large-white-sardine/

 

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Moore June 8, 2018 at 11:25 am

Thanks for sharing your adventure, Nancy! Informative as well as interesting.

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Nancy Soares June 11, 2018 at 10:48 am

Thanks, Tony! Glad you enjoyed this post. In all the years I’ve gone out, I’ve never had anything even close to this experience. It was super fun. Probably because I’ve mostly paddled in rough water. It was also good to go with a knowledgeable guide who understood the feeding patterns, otherwise I might have missed a lot just from not knowing what was going on.

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