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Whale-watching for landlubbers.

"A spout! To the right, about 300 yards out!" Binoculars and spotting scopes swing around, and clifftop enthusiasts scan the swells for the rolling back of a southbound California gray whale.

Two, then three times, the whale surfaces, exhaling its triangular cloud. Each time, more watchers get a fix on the spot. Then broad flukes appear, signaling a long, deep, underwater run, and the watchers resume their vigil.

In northern California, this month is the first peak of the gray whale's annual 3,000-mile migration from the cold waters of the Bering Sea, where it feeds, to the warm lagoons of Baja California, where it calves and mates. As the great sea mammals pass, record numbers of fans are expected to line the high bluffs and cliffs along coastal promontories to watch the parade.

A number of beach parks offer interpretive programs to explain the migration and help visitors learn how to spot whales. Most of these are short (less than an hour), and afterward many participants join coastal vigils with the confirmed aficionados.

Whales aren't always dependably in view. Traveling in groups called pods, 20 or 30 animals sometimes appear in a single hour. But there are also days when you may see only a few whales, and these can be far offshore.

"Watching whales from land can be frustating," sighed one would-be spotter. "They rarely swim as close to shore as you can get to them in a boat. On the other hand, the ground doesn't rock, it isn't crowded, you're warm and dry, and--when the kids get bored--there's plenty of room to run."

January is one of the most dependable times for spotting. On their southbound trip, the whales seem to pass closer to the coastline. On their return run northward, sometime around March, pods are more loosely distributed and the whales are farther offshore. But one way or another, whales travel along the California coast from December into April. Late in the season, you probably won't see as many as now, but you might be lucky enough to spot a mother and her new calf playing and feeding just beyond the surf.

Time your whale-watching outing for early in the morning, when sunlight is at your back and winds are calm (a strong wind blows away the telltale spout, and whales are harder to see amid whitecaps). A spotting scope or binoculars are helpful but not essential. Generally, the first thing you'll spot is the V-shaped spout.

The following northern California coastal parks, listed north to south, offer whale programs; day use is free unless noted. Most sites are also good places to see harbor seals, sea lions, and marine birds.

Redwood National Park, 1111 Second ST., Crescent City 95531; (707) 464-6101. One of the best lookouts in this park is at the end of 3-mile-long Endert's Beach Road, which leads off U.S. Highway 101 a mile south of Crescent City. Displays at the overlook describe the whales and their migration. A spotting scope is set up in the park's new southern information center, about a mile south of Orick on the coast near Freshwater Lagoon; a ranger is there to answer questions.

Mendocino Coast State Parks, Box 440, Mendocino 95460; (707) 937-5804. Now through March, on most Saturdays and Sundays at 10 A.M., rangers will give talks and help spotters at three state parks along State Highway 1. At MacKerricher (3 miles north of Fort Bragg), head to Laguna Point; at Russian Gulch (1-1/2 miles north of Mendocino, $2 day-use fee), try the Blowhole parking lot; and at Mendocino Headlands (in the town of Mendocino), go to the Headlands parking lot.

In Mendocino, the new Ford House Museum (the only building on the south side of Main Street) has current information on the migration and a film on gray whales. Volunteer-staffed, it's open from about 9 to 4 on weekends.

Salt Point State Park, 25050 State Highway 1, Jenner 95450; (707) 847-3221. Saturdays and Sundays in January and March, a ranger meets visitors at 10 A.M. at the park's Marine Terrace parking area ($2 day-use fee) to discuss and view whales. The 1-1/2-mile Stump Beach Trail leads north along the bluffs; from it, watch for land mammals--especially jackrabbits--as well as marine mammals.

Sonoma Coast State Beach, Bodega Bay 94923; (707) 875-3483. Bodega Head is the northernmost block of granite on the California coast and a perfect perch for whale-watching. From State Highway 1 on the north edge of town, take East Shore Road 1/4 mile, then turn right on Bay Flat Road and continue 3-1/2 miles to an oceanside parking lot. A ranger will be there from 1 to 4 Saturdays from December 14 through January 25 and March 1 through April 5. Climb a grassy trail up Bodega Head for a more elevated view of the sea and of Bodega Rock--a popular hangout for birds and sea lions.

Point Reyes National Seashore, Lighthouse Visitor Center, Point Reyes 94956; (415) 669-1534. Jutting into the ocean, the point on which the lighthouse stands is one of the coast's best whale lookouts. It is also one of the busiest. Last year, the traffic out to the Point Reyes Light was so heavy on weekend afternoons that many people just gave up. This year, visitors' cars may be kept as far as 5 miles away until spaces open up in the lighthouse parking lot. Our advice: come early, or visit during the week.

From State Highway 1 in Olema, take Bear Valley Road 1 mile to Sir Francis Drake Highway, which leads 23 miles to the lighthouse lot. From here, it's a 1/4-mile walk to the Lighthouse Visitor Center; 300 steps lead steeply down to the 1870 lighthouse. The visitor center and light are open 10 to 5 daily January through March; on weekends, rangers give talks hourly from 10 to 5. Weekday talks are held when crowds are large enough. For details on day-long whale classes, write to Point Reyes Field Seminars at the address preceding.

Point Lobos State Reserve, Box 62, State Highway 1, Carmel 93923; (408) 624-4909. Another promontory with spectacular scenery and good whale-watching, Point Lobos ($2 entry fee) requires as much planning as Point Reyes. There are no scheduled ranger-led whale programs, but on most weekends, docent lead walks out to Pinnacle Point, a good whale lookout. The reserve's rich variety of marine life makes it a good stop any time of year.

Other whale-watching promontories on the Monterey Peninsula include Point Pinos (at the end of Ocean View Boulevard in Pacific Grove) and Point Joe (along 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach).
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:from Crescent City to Point Lobos' beach parks, California
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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