Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

While December marks the end of another year, it’s the beginning of another passing whale migration for Crescent City and Del Norte County.

Many visitors come to the coast and brave ever-changing weather for a chance to see and photograph surfacing, breaching and spyhopping whales.

According to Redwood National and State Parks’ Website, whales make the long journey down the coast to give birth and feed in warmer waters.

While it was once assumed the entire population of gray whales migrate south in winter, scientists have found that some, perhaps a few hundred, stop and hang out along the way.

“Some, a few hundred at most, stop well south of the Arctic region and spend some, if not all, of their summer foraging and feeding far from the rest of the population,” according to a RNSP report. “These individuals belong to what scientists call the Pacific Coast Feeding Aggregation. Gray whales, unlike all the other baleen whales, do not feed in open ocean.”

If you miss the southern migration, which will last into January, don’t despair. Whales will again pass on their way north from mid-March to May.

Shooting from shore

Many will want to go home with that amazing photo of a whale surfacing or its tail disappearing into the ocean. However, if you try to zoom in on a particular spot from the moment you see the spout, you will often be too late to catch anything more than a light mist.

Shooting photos from the shore can be particularly problematic, as tall waves in the foreground may hide the whale as it surfaces. The first rule is to get as far above the water as possible.

A good tip to catch a surfacing whale on camera is to time the first two spouts you see.

Whales are currently heading south, so if you see a spout, take note of where it is, or use a shoreline reference point and wait for the next spout. Whales at rest will spout up to three times a minute.

Note the time between the first and second spout. Then draw an imaginary line between the two and note the distance. Move that line to the left, starting at the point of the last spout. Now you know where to focus your camera.

Zoom in and focus on the area about that distance ahead of the last spout. Keep your frame a bit wide so the whale doesn’t surface outside it.

Countdown the time between spouts in your head. When you get down to the final five to 10 seconds, be focused and ready. If you’re using a viewfinder, it will also help to keep both eyes open, as you try to keep your camera fixed on one area.

If you want to catch the whale’s tail, resist the urge to hit the shutter button at the moment you see the spout. It will take a few seconds past the spout for the tail to break the water’s surface.

Once it goes under, move your camera the determined distance to the left and be ready.

If your camera shoots in various size formats, be sure to use the largest available, in case you need to crop and center your photos later. If your camera has a burst setting to take many photos consecutively, it may also help ensure you get a good shot. If you’re using a tripod, be sure to leave the head a bit loose so you can rotate if needed. As always, it’s best on clear mornings when the sun is behind you.

Popular local whale watching locations include Point St. George, Brother Jonathan Point, Whaler Island, Endert’s Beach Overlook and Klamath Beach Overlook.

Volunteers will be at Brother Jonathan Point between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily until Sunday. They’ll help you spot whales and share information about other marine mammals.

Check out the Triplicate’s Facebook page for a video of two whales surfacing last January, as seen from Whaler Island.

Reach Tony Reed at treed@triplicate.com.

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