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Summer whale watching in California: Where to see blues, humpbacks and even sharks

People think whale-watching season in California is limited to winter when Pacific gray whales migrate from Mexico to Alaska and back. But summer offers a chance to see other kinds of whales — blues and humpbacks — and this year sharks too.

The whales come to eat. Right now, California’s coast is teeming with tiny shrimp-like organisms called krill, the only thing blue whales eat (because they don’t eat fish).

Jim Covel, the director of guest experience training and interpretation at Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, says the food supply is particularly good right now because of upwelling, which is “where cold nutrient-rich water comes up to the surface … and enriches the whole food chain in that part of the ocean."

California’s coast is one of five major upwelling areas in the world, which makes it a great whale-watching destination. 

Sharks, on the other hand, are drawn by warmer ocean waters, this year particularly off Orange County. This prompted Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching in Dana Point to offer two-hour tours this Saturday and Aug. 27 ($29 each) for those who want to look for great white, mako, thresher, blue and hammerhead sharks.

For whale sightings, it's hard to top Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary because of its deep waters that aren’t far from shore. 

Marine researcher Captain Nancy Black, owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, said she recently saw 100 humpbacks in a single trip. Through September (while the krill are plentiful), here’s what you can expect to see in California’s waters.

San Diego to Santa Barbara:  There are humpback and blue whales, with occasional minke and fin whale sightings. Educator and whale researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger says you’d be lucky to see a rare Bryde’s whale, a tropical species from Mexico, which may appear off the waters of Newport Beach, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Dana Point.

Some outfitters to try for two- or three-hour tours (prices are for adult tickets): 

Monterey Bay: This is whale watching on steroids; you’ll find lots of humpbacks, many blue whales, a few fin whales and the occasional minke.

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