Hey there my travel enthusiast and welcome to my post where we will check out my 5 best whale watching spots in California this year. California is one of the best places in the world to spot these majestic creatures and with its long coastline and diverse marine ecosystems, it offers a variety of whale watching opportunities throughout the year.
Gray whales are the most commonly seen species, but you might also spot humpback whales, blue whales, finback whales and minke whales. Keep an eye out for orcas, dolphins and porpoises too. You can go whale watching year-round, but the best time to see whales is from December to April, during their annual migration from Alaska to Baja California.
Map of Californian Whale Watching spots
Use this map to identify the locations of the best places to whale watch in California listed below:
Best Whale Watching Spots in California
Now, in my experience in both where I live in Australia and from driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in California, if it is whale season, you can usually see whales in the ocean from any headland or lookout.
However, if you are going specifically to find them at the best times or see them close up on a tour or cruise, then here are some of the top whale watching spots in California:
1. Monterey Bay
Monterey Bay is a haven for a variety of marine species including a rich array of whale species that traverse its waters annually. Among the most commonly spotted species are Gray Whales, Humpback Whales and Orcas.
Their presence in the Bay often follows a seasonal pattern, with Gray Whales typically seen during their migration periods in the winter and spring, while Humpback Whales and Orcas are often sighted in the summer and fall. Observers are treated to a multitude of behaviors such as breaching, where whales leap out of the water and fluking, where they lift their tails above the surface.
Whale watching tours in Monterey Bay
Various whale-watching excursions provide differing experiences in Monterey Bay to cater to the interests and preferences of visitors. Boat-based tours, ranging from small vessels to larger ships, offer a close-up view of the whales and an opportunity to witness their behaviors firsthand.
Some good options here include:
- Discovery Whale Watch:
- This tour is praised for its knowledgeable marine biologist who provides insightful commentary throughout the journey. The friendly staff ensures a pleasant experience for visitors as well making it a highly recommended choice for those looking to explore the marine life in Monterey Bay.
- Princess Monterey Whale Watching:
- With an extremely friendly and knowledgeable crew, this tour provides amazing sightings of humpback whales among other wildlife. The experience aboard the ship is highly rated by attendees, making it another top pick for whale watching enthusiasts.
- Monterey Bay Whale Watch:
- This tour offers an amazing experience with a knowledgeable crew, comfortable boat and sightings of dolphins and humpback whales. The enriching experience provided by this tour makes it a favorite among travelers.
2. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, with its proximity to the Channel Islands and the Pacific Ocean, offers a spectacular setting for observing a variety of marine species. Among the most commonly spotted whale species are Humpback Whales, Gray Whales and Orcas.
The migration patterns of these whales bring them closer to the shores of Santa Barbara, providing ample opportunities for sightings. Gray whales, for instance, are often seen during their migration periods in the winter and spring months whilst Humpback whales and Orcas are more commonly sighted during the summer and fall.
The behaviors exhibited by these whales, such as breaching, fluking and feeding are a sight to behold. Observers also often get to witness these majestic creatures engaging in social interactions with other marine species like Dolphins and Sea Lions, providing a fascinating glimpse into the rich marine biodiversity of the region.
Whale watching tours in Santa Barbara
Whale watching in Santa Barbara is facilitated through various organized tours and excursions. Here are some of the notable ones:
- Channel Islands Expeditions:
- Offering multi-day tours this expedition provides a comprehensive marine life exploration experience. Besides whale watching, visitors have the opportunity to engage in scuba diving and snorkeling, exploring the rich marine biodiversity around the Channel Islands.
- Condor Express Whale Watching:
- Known for its sightseeing tours, Condor Express provides boat tours specifically designed for whale watching. With knowledgeable crews, passengers are likely to spot Dolphins, Sea Lions and Humpback Whales, making the tour a memorable experience.
- Sunset Kidd Sailing Cruises & Whale Watching:
- Sunset Kidd offers a unique sailing experience combined with whale watching. The serene environment of a sailing cruise coupled with the excitement of spotting whales provides a balanced and enjoyable excursion.
Additional options include Celebration Cruises Santa Barbara and Double Dolphin Cruises, both offering distinct experiences from a more luxurious cruise setting or a sailing adventure.
3. San Diego
San Diego is a hot spot for whale watching thanks to its location along the migration route of various whale species. The whale watching season is year-round but it peaks between December and April when over 20,000 Gray Whales migrate along the San Diego coast.
Other notable species include Blue Whales, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales and Minke Whales, with Blue Whales being particularly prominent from summer to fall (June to October) due to their impressive feeding behavior.
- Gray Whales:
- These whales migrate annually from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to their breeding grounds in Baja California, south of San Diego. Gray whales can reach a length of 52 ft. and weigh up to 36 tons, reaching sexual maturity shortly after 5 years of age.
- Blue Whales:
- As the largest animals on Earth, Blue Whales are known for their massive size and unique feeding behavior. They can be observed from June to October, showcasing their bluish-gray coloration and enormous lengths of up to 100 feet.
- Humpback Whales:
- Known for their expressive surface behaviors like breaching and unique “whale songs,” Humpback whales are a spectacle in the waters of San Diego. Their acrobatics and vocalizations are among the attractions that make whale watching an enthralling experience.
Whale watching tours in San Diego
San Diego offers a variety of whale-watching tours to cater to different preferences. Here are some noteworthy excursions:
- Private Family Whale & Dolphin Adventure:
- A 3-hour private tour that includes an enclosed cabin, commentary on local wildlife, bottled water and safety equipment. This VIP/exclusive tour format is perfect for families or groups looking to learn about local wildlife and ecosystems in a more personalized setting.
- San Diego Whale Watching Tour:
- Lasting 2 to 3 hours, this budget-friendly tour departs from Quivira Rd in San Diego. It boasts marine biologists on board to provide educational commentary on local wildlife and ecosystems and the short journey from the bay to the open ocean maximizes the time spent observing Whales, Dolphins and other marine life.
- Gone Whale Watching San Diego:
- Listed among the top whale watching tours in San Diego, this tour provides a platform for spectators to observe the majestic sea creatures in their natural habitat.
Other reputable whale-watching companies include San Diego Whale Watch and Adventure Whale Watching, each offering unique experiences to observe the marine giants of San Diego while promoting awareness about marine conservation as well.
4. San Francisco Bay
San Francisco Bay is a rich marine ecosystem that hosts a variety of whale species, particularly during their migratory periods. The best time to go whale watching in San Francisco is during the busy travel season from March to October where you can see:
- Humpback Whales:
- Typically seen from spring into winter, Humpback whales are known for their acrobatic behaviors, including breaching and tail-slapping. They are also famous for their melodic songs and cooperative feeding behaviors.
- Gray Whales:
- Gray whales are commonly spotted during their migration between the feeding grounds in the Arctic to the breeding grounds in Baja California from winter to spring. They are known for their bottom-feeding behavior and long migration routes, one of the longest of any mammal.
- Blue Whales:
- The summer to fall period (July through October) is when blue whales, the largest animals on Earth, can be seen in the waters around San Francisco Bay. They are known for their immense size and are primarily filter feeders, consuming large quantities of small shrimp-like animals known as krill.
- Orcas (Killer Whales):
- Orcas are usually seen from December through May. They are known for their distinctive black and white coloring and their highly social and intelligent behaviors. Orcas are apex predators and have a diverse diet including fish, seals and even other whales.
Whale watching tours in San Francisco
San Francisco Bay offers a variety of whale-watching tours that provide a chance to observe these majestic creatures in their natural habitat:
- San Francisco Whale Tours:
- This tour is praised for its skilled captain and knowledgeable and enthusiastic naturalist, who guide visitors through a magical cruise with beautiful scenery around Fisherman’s Wharf.
- Oceanic Society Farallon Islands Whale Watching:
- Located in the Marina District, this tour offers both boat and eco tours. It’s highlighted for its substantial activity all around the boat allowing tourists to witness a bustling marine environment.
- Captain Morgan’s Sail Charters:
- This charter not only provides boat tours but also sports camps and clinics, offering a variety of experiences for visitors. While it’s not exclusively a whale-watching tour, it provides an opportunity to see whales while enjoying other water-based activities as well.
5. Point Reyes
Point Reyes, due to its unique geographical location, serves as a vantage point for observing various whale species, particularly during migration seasons. Point Reyes provides a more naturalistic whale-watching experience with emphasis on self-guided or smaller tour group experiences, allowing visitors to connect more intimately with the natural environment while observing the incredible migratory journey of whales.
From this vantage point, you can expect to see:
- Gray Whales:
- Engaging in the longest migration of any mammal, Gray whales travel around 10,000 miles each year, migrating from the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Alaska to the warm, shallow lagoons of Baja California. They can often be seen from the shores of Point Reyes during their journey.
- Other Whale Species:
- Although Gray whales are the most commonly sighted whales in the region, other species are also observed during different times of the year. The precise species and their behaviors can vary, but can include Humbacks and Minkes.
Whale watching tours in Point Reyes
Whale watching in Point Reyes is a bit different from other locations as there are not as many commercial whale-watching tours available. However, there are a few options and various vantage points for enthusiasts:
- Andiamo Whale Charters:
- This is one of the whale-watching tours available near Point Reyes, offering boating excursions for whale watching. The charter has received positive reviews, indicating a worthwhile experience.
- Point Reyes Lighthouse:
- Known among whale aficionados and amateurs as a superb vantage point for whale watching, the historic lighthouse and observation deck on the westernmost tip of Point Reyes National Seashore offer a prime location to observe whales, especially during the migration season.
- Self-Guided Tours:
- Those who venture along the rocky trails of Point Reyes or visit during the peak whale-watching seasons (late December to January and mid-March to April) are likely to be rewarded with the sight of rare Gray whales and possibly other species. The natural setting of Point Reyes provides a unique and rewarding whale-watching experience
Best Time for Whale Watching in California
Whale watching is a popular activity in California, but the best time to go depends on what type of whales you want to see. Here are the best times to go whale watching in California:
- Gray Whales: The best time to see gray whales is from mid-December to mid-April. During this time, the whales migrate from Alaska to Baja California and back. The peak season is from mid-January to mid-March. You can see Gray whales at many locations along the California coast, including Monterey Bay, Point Reyes, and Santa Barbara.
- Humpback Whales: The best time to see Humpback whales is from May to November. During this time, the whales come to California to feed and you can see them at many locations along the California coast including Monterey Bay, San Francisco Bay and Santa Barbara.
- Blue Whales: The best time to see blue whales is from mid-June to mid-September. During this time, the whales come to California to feed and you can find them at many locations along the California coast including Monterey Bay, San Francisco Bay, and Santa Barbara.
- Orcas: The best time to see Orcas is from April to September. During this time, the whales come to California to feed. You can see Orcas at many locations along the California coast including Monterey Bay and the Channel Islands.
Safety Tips for Whale Watching
Whale watching can be an exciting and unforgettable experience, but it’s important to keep safety in mind. Here are some tips to help you have a safe and enjoyable time while whale watching in California:
- Always wear a life jacket. It’s important to wear a life jacket while on board a boat, even if you’re a strong swimmer. In the unlikely event that the boat capsizes or you fall overboard, a life jacket can save your life.
- Follow the captain’s instructions. Listen carefully to the captain’s instructions before and during the trip. They will give you important information about safety procedures, what to do in case of an emergency and how to behave around the whales.
- Stay at a safe distance. Always maintain a safe distance from the whales. Getting too close to the whales can be dangerous for both you and the whales. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends staying at least 100 yards away from whales.
- Don’t approach whales from behind. When approaching whales, always approach them from the side or the front, never from behind. Approaching them from behind can startle them and cause them to swim erratically, which can be dangerous.
- Don’t feed the whales. Feeding the whales can be harmful to their health and can disrupt their natural feeding patterns. It’s also illegal to feed whales in California.
- Don’t touch the whales. Touching the whales can be harmful to their health and can also be dangerous for you. Whales are wild animals and can be unpredictable.
- Stay seated while on board. While on board the boat, always stay seated and keep your hands and feet inside the boat. Standing up or leaning over the edge of the boat can be dangerous, especially if the boat hits a wave or changes direction suddenly.
There you have it, my 5 best spots for whale watching in California. As usual, let me know of your experiences here or if there is anything you think I need to add.
Also, please do not hesitate to comment below if you have any questions, concerns, or corrections or would like me to check anything else out for you.
Until next time.