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A Warning to Southbound Sailors

Crews heading south to Mexico this winter who’ve upgraded their nav stations with AIS and digital radar will probably feel safer than ever. But there’s one type of offshore obstacle that doesn’t subscribe to AIS and rarely if ever shows up on radar: whales.

Two humpbacks lunge feeding
Migrating whales are a common sight along the West Coast during winter. These mature humpbacks are lunge feeding.
© 2019 Cornelia Oedekoven / NOAA/GFNMS

As most West Coast sailors undoubtedly know, humpbacks and gray whales migrate south to the warm waters of Mexico in early winter and make the return trip north in spring. The odds are minuscule that your boat will accidentally hit one, but it is a remote possibility. While dolphins can dart left and right within inches of your bow without the slightest chance of making contact, whales aren’t nearly as nimble. Grays and humpbacks travel at only 5 knots, max, when in migration mode. Plus, they often sleep on the surface.

What to do? During daylight hours don’t be tempted to pass too close to them no matter how badly you want to grab some spectacular photos. And at night be sure your watchstanders keep their ears open for the telltale sound of whales’ deep, hollow breathing or spouting.

Most offshore sailors consider it a privilege to spot whales along their route, especially since they are among the largest and smartest creatures on Earth. The more you know about them, the more rewarding your offshore encounters will be. So we suggest you do a little homework in advance, while you still have online access. A good place to start is by tapping the resources of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. There are also several informative whale apps you might want to check out, including Whale Alert, which encourages mariners to report sightings of whales offshore in order to minimize ‘ship strikes’ and other vessel contact.

With these warnings, here’s wishing you a whale of a good time on the trip south.

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