White-capped waves etch the surface of the sea and then an explosion of air and water rockets into the sky. A gray whale, one of Earth's oldest species of mammals, heaves a white, showery fountain, slips back into the water and then arches a massive tail into the air.
Whale-watching season is a prized perk of living on the West Coast, but many Californians pass up this annual ritual because spotting whales usually means spending several hours on a cold, wet, rolling boat.
Here are 10 sites in Southern California where you can spot the annual migration without leaving shore:
* Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Monterey County
This small state park, adjacent to Big Sur in the Los Padres National Forest, borders the coast and includes towering ridges and coastal bluffs, with panoramic views of the ocean. Take the Overlook Trail, which runs along the top of the cliffs, and find a comfortable spot where you can sit with a pair of binoculars. If the whales are scarce, at least you can see the gorgeous and much-photographed 80-foot waterfall that splashes from a granite cliff into the beach.
Directions: The park is 12 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur on Highway 1. Look for a sign on the east side of the highway.
Hours: From 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.
Fee: $8 per car
Contact: (831) 667-2315or www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=578
* San Simeon State Park, San Luis Obispo
This park, about five miles south of Hearst Castle, has a vast, green wetland. But to see whales, head toward the southwestern end of the park, where a mile-long boardwalk borders Moonstone Beach. The wooden walkway stretches from the bluffs down to the shoreline. Benches along the path make for perfect whale-watching rest stops.
Directions: From San Luis Obispo, take Highway 1 north for 35 miles. Exit San Simeon Creek Road.
Hours: Open 24 hours a day.
Fee: Free for day use.
Contact: (805) 927-2035 or www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=590
* Lookout County Park, Santa Barbara
This 4-acre park on the cliffs of Summerland is a family-friendly recreation area with picnic tables, a children's playground and restrooms. On a clear day, the views of the Channel Islands and the Santa Barbara coastline are exceptional.
Direction: Take the Summerland exit off Highway 101 and turn south into Evans Avenue.
Hours: 8 a.m. to sunset.
Contact: (805) 969-1720 or www.santabarbaraca.gov/Parks/parks_community_main.html
* Shoreline Park, Santa Barbara
Here's another well-manicured shoreline park where families can enjoy a picnic while scanning the ocean surface for whale spouts. The 15-acre park is high on a bluff, overlooking the beach and harbor, with a whale tail-shaped bench located near the cliff's edge -- a perfect spot for whale watchers.
Direction: From Highway 101, take the Garden Street exit, turn south on Garden Street, turn right on West Cabrillo Boulevard until it becomes Shoreline Drive. The park is near the intersection of Shoreline Drive and La Marina Drive.
Hours: Sunrise to 10 p.m.
Contact: (805) 564-5418 or www.santabarbaraca.gov/Parks/parks_community_main.html
* Point Dume State Beach and Preserve, Malibu
This 63-acre state preserve sits on the northern end of the Santa Monica Bay, with rugged bluffs and high cliffs that jut out into the sea. But no need to hike. The parking lot is only a few yards from the overlook platform. If the whales are no-shows, you may still see some wildlife. The preserve is home to coyotes, skunks, raccoons, butterflies, lizards and snakes, among other creatures.
Directions: From Santa Monica, take Pacific Coast Highway north 18 miles, turn left on Dume Drive and turn right on Cliff Drive.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
Contact: (805) 488-1827 or www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=623
* Point Fermin Park, San Pedro
This 37-acre park is well-manicured and family-friendly, with pagodas, shade trees and a children's playground. The park is high on a cliff, at San Pedro's southernmost tip. From the park, visitors can see all the way to Santa Catalina Island and beyond.
Directions: Take Interstate 110 south until it ends, then follow south Gaffey Street until it ends at 807 Paseo Del Mar.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Contact: (310) 548-7705 or www.sanpedrochamber.com/champint/ptfmpk.htm* The Point Vicente Interpretive Center, Rancho Palos Verdes
If you visit the interpretive center to spot whales, you won't be alone. The adjacent patio overlooking the ocean on a coastal bluff is used by volunteers with the American Cetacean Society to complete their annual gray whale count. This is not only a great place to spot whales but a chance to ask experts whale-related questions. The volunteers work every day from December to May, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Directions: Take Interstate 110 south until it ends, follow Gaffey Street for about two miles, turn right on W. 25th Street until it becomes Palos Verdes Drive South. Look for the park on the left.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Contact: (310) 377-5370 or www.palosverdes.com/rpv/recreationparks/PointVicenteInterpretiveCenter/index.cfm.
* Santa Catalina Island
It's 22 miles off the coast of San Pedro, so just about any elevated spot on Santa Catalina Island is good for spotting whales. But islanders suggest getting a free hiking permit from the Catalina Island Conservancy, or hailing a cab to make the trek out of Avalon, up Stagecoach Road to a turnoff at the 1,300-foot summit near Wrigley Reservoir. From there, you look down on a wide ocean channel that is a favorite for migrating whales.
Direction: From Avalon, take Stagecoach Road about three miles north to a turnoff near Wrigley Reservoir.
Hours: 24 hours
Fee: Hiking permits are free.
Contact: (310) 510-2596or www.catalinaconservancy.org
* Crescent Bay Point Park, Laguna Beach
This well-manicured little park on a coastal bluff north of Crescent Bay is reminiscent of a Japanese garden. Head for the cement sitting area, bordered by a protective rail, where you can get a 180-degree view of the sea. If whales are scarce, check out the sea lions that hang out in the rocks below.
Directions: From Laguna Beach, take Pacific Coast Highway about one mile, turn left on Crescent Bay Drive.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Contact: (949) 497-0716 or radified.com/crescent_bay/laguna_beach/index.htm* Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego
On the tip of the Point Loma Peninsula, on the west end of San Diego, is a 160-acre park that is great for hiking, exploring and observing nature. From the visitor center parking lot, follow the walking path around the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and look for the Whale Overlook. From there, you can get a panoramic view of the Pacific. Look beyond the kelp forest to the south for those tell-tale water spouts. Any whale questions, ask the rangers who staff the monument visitor's center.
Direction: From downtown, take Harbor Drive past the airport, left onto Rosecrans Street, right onto Cannon Street, left onto Catalina Boulevard. Follow Catalina until it ends.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Fee: $5 parking or $3 per person for walk-ins.
Contact: (619) 557-5450 or www.nps.gov/cabr/.