There are at least eight species regularly seen on whale watching tours in Newport Beach!
Baleen Whales seen off Newport Beach are Blue Whales, Gray Whales, Humpback Whales, Fin Whales, and Minke Whales. Toothed Whales seen off Newport Beach are Common Dolphin, Pacific White-Sided Dolphin, and Bottlenose Dolphin.
Let’s start from biggest to smallest!
Blue Whales: The heaviest animal to ever live on planet earth(up to 200 tons) feeds off Newport Beach May through October. In California waters, they average about 80 feet long, but are known to reach over 100! The population that frequents the West Coast of the United States stands at about 3,000 whales, which isn’t too far from it’s historical size. On a really good day in the summer, we might see 5-15 individuals feeding on krill off of Orange County. Blue Whales require patience, because their feeding dives can last upwards of 10 minutes. However, waiting is rewarded because when they surface again, they move very little and allow us to get close looks. Having evolved without predators, the blue whale is quite tolerant of approaches by boats. It wasn’t until the past few decades that Blue Whales were sighted with consistency off Newport Beach. These days, it’s one of the best places in the United States for Blue Whale Watching!
Fin Whales: You might be able to watch a fin whale any month of the year off Newport Beach, but it seems the Spring time is best. These big animals are at times even more boat friendly than the blue whale. On multiple occasions, we have had them swim circles around the boat to check it out. They also are seen in social groups off Orange County more than their big cousin, the blue whale. They rarely show their tails or jump, but are remain impressive in their size and striking in their dark color.
Humpback Whales: All around, probably the “best” whale to watch! Humpbacks are shows offs: big, gregarious, and they love to breach! Again, possible to view any month of the year, but feeding is concentrated May through November. Their source of food is anchovies, which have been in great abundance off of Newport Beach in recent years.
Gray Whales: The mainstay of Southern California whale watching, Gray Whales can be counted on to pass through the waters of Newport Beach faithfully as they make the longest migration of any mammal on earth! The 12,000 mile round trip from their summer feeding grounds off Alaska to their winter breeding grounds in Mexico makes for excellent viewing December through May. In the spring time during the northbound migration, Newport Beach becomes a playground for mom and baby whales as they stop to rub themselves on the sandy bottom just yards from the shoreline.
Minke Whales: The smallest whale in the Northern Hemisphere, the Minke Whales we see are typically the size of our boat, from 20 to 25 feet long. They can be spotted year around, and feed on krill and anchovies. While they have a reputation for being shy and hard to track, sometimes they will make jumps or come to investigate the boat. Just another whale species to check off your list, at times abundant here off the Orange County coast.
Bottlenose Dolphin: This species is the biggest dolphin we typically see off of Newport Beach. They are the same type featured in the TV show “Flipper”: Gray, friendly, and some of the smartest animals in the ocean! There are actually two sub-types of bottlenose in our waters. An inshore variety is seen almost always within 1,000 feet of the coastline and occasionally in the bay. These bottlenose are in smaller pods of 2-10 animals and typically aren’t the most boat friendly dolphin, the reason being due to their proximity to shore boats just don’t elicit a “special” reaction because they see them every day. On the other hand, the offshore bottlenose dolphin travels in larger groups of 8-50 and can be a LOT of fun to watch! They love to jump, play in the wake, and surf the bow of our boat. You can often touch them while leaning over the side. They are usually larger and darker than their inshore counterparts, and we start seeing the approximately 2 miles offshore.
Pacific White-Sided Dolphin: All dolphin are beautiful, but this species truly takes the cake. With it’s striking white “suspender stripes” running along the top side, and its distinct dorsal fin, Pacific White-Sided Dolphin are such a joy to see! Unlike other dolphin species, their presence in Newport Beach is seasonal, with November- May being the time of year that we can view them. Usually found in smaller pods of 4-12 animals, they are eager to play with the boat, especially loving to ride the bow.
Common Dolphin: Last but certainly not least, are the common dolphin! “Commons” are our year-around staple off Newport Beach, and it’s a shame their name describes them so generically and boring. These are super special animals, almost ALWAYS eager to play with our boat, appearing in the largest groups, and available to see almost every day of the year! The average sized pod of common dolphin is about 50 animals, but its not “uncommon” to see 200 or 300, even 1,000 in a group. They are superb jumpers and swimmers, always impressing us with their agility and playfulness.
What about the exotics?
In addition to the above described animals, we also have seen on our tours some rarer visitors!
Killer Whales- Can appear at any time! Most sightings occur November through March. There are three different sub-groups that are seen off Southern California: Transients from Nor Cal, Offshores from deep water, and Eastern Tropical Pacifics from Mexico.
Pilot Whales- Prefer warmer water, August-October typically hold sightings.
False Killer Whales- ALWAYS in the Spring. Late March through mid-April. Like clockwork!
Risso’s Dolphins- Any time of year, when their food is here (squid).
Bryde’s Whales- Warm water in June through August, mostly sighted during El Nino years.
So why exactly does Newport Beach offer some of the best whale watching in California?
The Newport Beach coastline is situated at an ideal location for whale and dolphin activity. While a visitor to our shores might look out on the ocean and see one contiguous mass of water, our whale watching captains are looking at the contours of the ocean floor and the currents that orchestrate the feeding and migration of these animals to our waters. The below image from GoogleEarth shows the Newport Canyon, a deep-water area very close to shore that attracts a variety of feeding marine mammals. Just two miles from the mouth of Newport Beach Harbor the water is already over 1,000 feet deep. Contrast this with San Diego, where you would have to travel 8 miles to reach the same depth. And many places off the East Coast of the United States require you to travel 30 or more miles from shore!
As the ocean currents interact with the dramatic change in water depth close to shore, the phenomena of “upwelling” is produced, stirring water from the depths to the surface. This mixing of water causes blooms of plankton, which form the foundation for ocean food chains. Krill and anchovies feed on plankton, in turn bringing their predators, whales and dolphins to the area. There are only a few places along the coast of California where the bottom of the seafloor rises so quickly so close to shore; this feature along the coast of Newport Beach makes it a very convenient and easy place for whale watching.