Upper Left: Killer Whale; NOAA
Upper Right: Humpback Whale; NOAA
Bottom: Humpback Whale; NOAA

Several species of whales are either seasonal visitors or year round residents of Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore waters, which extend a quarter mile from the shoreline. Because most large whales are highly migratory, the National Park Service is part of a much larger collaborative research and monitoring network that is attempting to understand the roles that whales play within a wide gamut of different ecosystems. Some large whales however—including minke whales—are thought to be year round residents of central California’s waters. Even gray whales are now seen all year at Point Reyes, as their population has grown and more of them feed in the park’s rich marine waters.

During the 19th and 20th centuries whales were hunted worldwide for their body oil which was used for lubricants in machines, fine candles, and cosmetics. Some species have at least partially recovered following the implementation of stringent whaling bans, but that recovery has often come slowly for several reasons. Whales are long-lived animals and it can be many years before they are ready to reproduce. Females then invest a great deal of time with one calf before having another. Over-hunting of large breeding females in the past has also slowed the recovery.

While most whale hunting has ceased, threats still exist such as entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, noise pollution, and climate change. Rising sea temperatures will likely change the location, timing, and extent of coastal upwelling, and subsequently change the food webs upon which whales depend. Right now however, great opportunities still exist to see many large whales in the coastal waters of the parks where fish and krill, their primary prey, remain abundant.