California Whale Watching Cruises

If you're looking for whale watching cruises, California is the place to be. You can watch the annual gray whale migration, get up close to the truly massive blue whale, and enjoy the acrobatics of the humpback whale. And while you're out on the water, you're bound to see quite a variety of wildlife, including seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, sharks, and numerous species of sea birds.

Gray whales can be seen along the entire length of the California coast. But if you want to see blue whales or humpback whales you'll find them primarily in the waters off the Bay Area and the Central Coast - from Point Reyes to the Santa Barbara Channel.

You'll find a variety of cruises available, including small sailing yachts, catamarans, large sturdy vessels to large luxury yachts. Sometimes, fishing charters double as whale watching boats. For the adventurous, there are kayaking tours and rigid inflatable boat (RIB) tours.

Whale watching expeditions can run for 2 or 3 hours or all day. You can even take a multi-day cruise to the gray whale's breeding grounds in Baja California.

Northern California

Bodega Bay Harbor Photo: Garry Gay

Several whale watching cruises operate in Northern California. These companies may offer sportsfishing and sunset cruises in addition to whale watching. Whale watching cruises are available here only during the gray whale migration from the end of December through April.

Most charters operate out of:

  • Crescent City
  • Fort Bragg
  • Bodega Bay

San Francisco Bay Area

Whale watching cruises are available year round in the Bay Area. Trips leaving from San Francisco are usually all day excursions to the Farallon Islands in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

This area is teeming with wildlife, including gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales, seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, and great white sharks. The Farallons are famous for the amazing variety of sea birds on the islands.

You can also board an all-day cruise to the Farallons from Half Moon Bay, offered seasonally. Or choose a shorter local trip during gray whale watching season.

California's Central Coast

Whale Watching at the Channel Islands  Photo ©

The Central Coast is arguably the best place to go whale watching in California. The nutrient rich waters off the Monterey coast and along the Santa Barbara Channel offer whales and other sea mammals a four star dining experience.

There are two marine sanctuaries here: the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the Santa Barbara Coast.

The Monterey Bay is particularly rich in sea life, due to a major upwelling that brings cold nutrient rich water to the surface, creating plankton blooms that really start the food chain rolling. The action centers around the Monterey Submarine Canyon, which cuts right through the center of the Monterey Bay.

The area also boasts the largest kelp forest in the country, a haven for the endearing sea otter.

Depending on the season, you'll find gray whales, blue whales and humpback whales, along with other species. In all there are over 33 different species of marine mammals, 94 species of sea birds, and a host of other sea creatures in the area.

You can board a whale watching cruise in the Monterey Bay area at Santa Cruz, Moss Landing, or Monterey.

Morro Bay is a fishing village, bird sanctuary, and tourist destination. Whale watching is offered seasonally.

For a trip to the Channel Islands, you'll leave from Santa Barbara, Ventura or Oxnard.

  • Monterey Bay: Santa Cruz, Moss Landing, and Monterey
  • Morro Bay
  • Santa Barbara
  • Ventura and Oxnard

Southern California

 Dana Point Harbor  Photo © Wassmann

In Southern California, whale watching tours used to follow the migration of the gray whale, from mid December through March. However, in many areas whale watching is now offered year round, taking advantage of the varied migration patterns of different species of whales.

You many be able to spot gray whales, humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, sperm whales, or Minke whales. Then there are the many year round residents, including dolphins, sea lions, and seals.

In Los Angeles County, look for whale watching cruises at:

  • Marina del Rey
  • Redondo Beach
  • San Pedro Bay (Port of Los Angeles)
  • Long Beach

In Orange County, you'll find whale watching cruises at:

  • Newport Beach
  • Dana Point

San Diego whale watching cruises range from 3 to 5 hour tours, longer expeditions to Baja California, and adventure tours in kayaks or rigid inflatable boats (RIBs). Some cruises focus on the Coronado Islands, off the coast of Mexico.

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