Every year, thousands of whales pass California on their journey from Alaska to Mexico. It’s an incredible migration, and one that is relatively easy for humans to see for themselves. That is, if you know where to look. We’ve put together a list of the six best places to go whale watching in California, complete with the best times to go and local tour outfits, all to help you witness the majestic giants under the sea.
California Whale Watching: The Six Best Places in the State to Spot Whales
Image Credit: Ian Schneider
1. Monterey Whale Watching
Monterey's chilly and food-rich waters offer the perfect place for whales and other marine animals to thrive. The peak season here is in January and February, but fin and minke whales, orcas, dolphins, and porpoises can be spotted in Monterey all year long.
Lots of Monterey companies offer whale-watching tours from Fisherman’s Wharf. Before setting out, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium to learn more about the local marine life. Monterey Whale Watching offers one of the best tours in the area (kids under 5 and expecting mothers are not allowed on the boat). For even more whale watching in the part of California, drive south from Monterey along the Big Sur Coast. Join a ranger led whale watch tour at Garrapata, Andrew Molera, or Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Parks.
2. Mendocino Whale Watching
The whale watching season on the Mendocino coast runs from November to April, when gray whales make their migration down to Baja, Mexico. Whale watching is such a big deal in Mendocino that the migration has inspired three separate festivals in the area. During the migrations, wales spouting, breaching, and diving can easily be seen from high vantage points along the coast line. Visit Mendocino Headlands State Park or Point Arena Lighthouse for great look out points.
If you’re interested in a closer view of the action, book a spot on a whale watching charter. Try Telstar Charters for a 2 hour boat tour with local and experienced guides (and no age restrictions for kids). For even more nature watching, call Catch-A-Canoe for canoe and kayak tours where you can see seals, otters, birds, and more.
3. Santa Barbara Whale Watching
The waters around Santa Barbara are home to over 30 different species of whales and dolphins. Grey whales are most often spotted on tours in the area, but if you’re lucky, you’ll see a Blue Whale (the largest animal on the planet!). It’s also common to encounter dolphins, sea lions, harbor seals, orcas, humpback whales, and pilot whales. Peak season to experience the grey whale migration is between February and May. Visit between July and September for the best chance to spot a blue or humpback whale.
To get up close and personal with the wildlife, book a tour with the Santa Barbara Sailing Center or the Condor Express. Note that kids must be at least five years old to ride with Condor.
4. San Diego Whale Watching
San Diego is a great place to whale watch from land and sea. Grab pair of binoculars and head to Torrey Pines State Reserve or the Birch Aquarium (both about 20 minutes from downtown San Diego) to spot migrating whales from the bluffs. You could also head to Whale Watch Lookout Point. 420 feet above the waves, this special spot is the perfect place to see whales breaching in the waves below.
For a close up look, book a trip with San Diego Whale Watch. The guides promise that if you don’t see a whale or dolphin, you’ll get another tour for free. Book a tour anytime from December to March to see gray whales, or wait for the summer and take a boat to the Coronado Islands to see blue whales, elephant seals, and orcas. Kids 2 years and older are welcome on board.
5. Orange County Whale Watching
Orange County’s marine habitat is home to a large number of whales, dolphins, and sea lions. Fortunatley for visitors, these animals tend to swim close to shore, making it easier to spot them. Although whales can be seen all year round in Orange County, the best time to visit is perhaps between December and April when the gray whales migrate. The best time to see blue whales is between May and October.
Dana County Whale Watching
Visit Dana Point, with 200 foot cliffs, for the perfect lookout point to spot blows. Dana Wharf and Newport Landing Whale Watching offer whale watching boat tours year round. All ages are welcome on either tour. If you’re a true whale enthusiast, visit Orange County in March for the annual Dana Point Festival of Whales. This celebration is complete with lectures, whale watching tours, and even a parade.
6. San Francisco Whale Watching
According to experts, 94 percent of migrating gray whales pass within 1 mile of the Point Reyes National Seashore, just 27 miles north of San Francisco. January is the best time to visit, but peak season runs from December to March. Not far from San Francisco, Montara and Half Moon Bay are two great places within driving distance from the city that offer great whale watch from shore.
Most guided tours are offered December through May, and some boats will take you as far as the Farallon Islands. The water around this rock outcropping is teeming with marine life. In fact, blue and humpback whales regularly feed in the area during the summer and fall. Book with SF Bay Whale Watching for an epic wildlife and whale watching tour around San Francisco and through the Farallon Islands. Children under 3-years-old aren’t allowed for safety reasons.
This article was written by Alexis Hartmann and edited by Tripping.com Content Specialist, Lexi Perman.