A major attraction to the central coast lies just offshore in the Pacific Ocean. Spotting whales and dolphins requires patience or a stroke of luck, but it is always a thrilling sight and one you won’t forget! Whales, dolphins, and porpoises live their lives completely at sea. They breathe air, are warm-blooded, and give birth to live young. They have flippers and powerful flukes that propel them through the water and have lost their fur coats, replace by a layer of blubber to maintain body temperature.
▪ Whales, dolphins and porpoises (Cetaceans)
▪ Harbor seals and elephant seals and sea lions (Pinnipeds)
▪ California Sea Otter (Mustelidae)
Cetaceans can be either Baleen or Toothed. Baleen whales (mysticetes) filter food from the water through plates of fringed baleen, made of keratin, that hang down from the upper jaw, like curtains or overlapping rows of combs that strain food from the water. Toothed whales have single blowholes and the males are larger than the females. Dolphins, porpoises, and sperm whale use their teeth for grabbing and piercing, not for chewing as they swallow prey whole or tear it into pieces. They communicate using echolocation, using high-frequency sounds to bounce off objects with the returning sound wave provides information.
The whales most often seen from our coastline are the gray whale and the humpback whale. We occasionally see blue whales, killer whales, and minke whales.
Humpback Whales are the species you will most often find along our coast and they are the most likely to be seen breaching the water with their acrobatic jumps. They use their tails to dive deep in search of anchovies, krill, and sardines. They can often be seen slapping their flippers, spouting, sounding, tail-lobbing, lunge feeding (as pictured here), and they appear to have to have a lot of fun!
California Gray Whales can be found from the Middle of December through mid-May, as they travel from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea down the coast. Their breeding grounds are in the lagoons of Baja, Mexico and during this stunning migration, more than 23,000 Gray Whales pass by on their southbound journey to mate and give birth in the warmer waters of Baja. In March, the whales begin their journey north, be sure to look closely for calves making their first journey with their mothers.
Blue Whales, the world’s largest animal, can measure up to 100 feet and weigh up to 400,000 pounds! They feed on krill, which is what attracts them to the central coast in the past several years in the summer months. The spout of a blue whale is much taller and straighter as opposed to a V-shaped spout of a humpback whale.
Dolphins and Porpoises are incredible plentiful across the Central Coast. These playful cetaceans are at times misidentified as either a dolphin or a porpoise given their close similarities. The best way to tell a dolphin from a porpoise is by tooth shape. Dolphins have conical teeth and porpoises have spade-shaped teeth. If you aren’t close enough to see teeth (if you see teeth, you are too close!), dolphins usually have a beak and a curved dorsal fin, although some have none. Porpoises never have a beak and usually have a triangular dorsal fin, although some have none. You can see how it can be confusing but generally if you spot one along our coast, you can safely bet it is a bottlenose dolphin!
Pinnipeds have adapted to a life at sea but they come ashore at times so hey have to be able to survive in both marine and terrestrial environments to mate, give birth, molt, and rest. The two main groups of local pinnipeds are Eared and Earless seals.
Eared Seals are easily identifiable by tiny external ear flaps and elongated neck. They use their front flippers for propulsion and their hind flippers for steering. They are agile on land and use four-legged movement. The males are about twice as big as the females and develop thickened necks and bumps on their heads called sagital crests. The young may be dependent for a year or more. The eared seals include sea lions and fur seals. California sea lions are usually visible on the Outer Islet at Piedras Blancas. Stellar sea lions and Northern fur seals are rarely seen.
Earless Seals have no external ear flaps and short necks. Because they can not pull their hind flippers around on land and walk like eared seals, they move their bodies forward like a caterpillar. Awkward on land, these graceful swimmers use their back flippers in a side-to-side movement and their front flippers for steering. With the exception of the Elephant Seal, which is sexually dimorphic, males and females are generally similar in appearance. Pups are weaned young and grow very fast. Earless seals are also referred to as true seals. Harbor seals and elephant seals are the commonly seen earless seals in our area, and late November is when the mature males arrive to fight for dominance over the pupping areas. Birthing and breeding commence in December with January the best time to view live births.
Mustelidae: Sea otters are members of the weasel family. They are more closely related to land carnivores than either pinnipeds or cetaceans and they are the most recently evolved marine mammal. They have completely adapted to marine life – they rest, mate, give birth, and suckle their young at sea, although they may at times come on land. Their hind limbs are webbed for swimming, but their front paws are padded and have clawed digits, more reminiscent of land animals. The California sea otter, or southern sea otter, is frequently seen from Moonstone Beach.