Whale Watching San Francisco Style

If you’re looking for some exciting whale watching, San Francisco can fill the bill. You’ll find gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales, and numerous other marine species in these waters. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most exciting places to go whale watching in California. Not only are whale watching cruises available year round here, but you’ll also be able to spot whales from land during the gray whale watching season.

There are several species of whales you can see in these waters, plus quite a variety of marine mammals, sharks, sea birds, and other species. The waters off the coast of San Francisco are teeming with life, and are major feeding grounds for endangered blue whales and humpback whales.

California boasts the largest population of blue whales in the world, about 2,000 out of a world-wide population of 15,000. So you’ve got a pretty good chance of seeing one during blue whale watching season, July through October.

Blue Whale Fluke  Photo: Josh Kaye-Carr, Channel Islands Naturalist Corps, NOAA

The humpback whale population is smaller, about 1,000, but you’ll know them if you see them, since they’re very animated. They can be seen from July through November.

The area includes three very large National Marine Sanctuaries: Cordell Bank , Gulf of the Farallones, and Monterey Bay, which provide a protected environment for sea life to flourish. This is a major area of seasonal upwelling, which brings colder, deeper nutrient rich waters to the surface, setting the food chain into hyperdrive. And that is why whale watching in San Francisco is such a thrill; there’s just so much to see.

More than thirty six marine mammal species have been found in this area, including 18 species of whales and dolphins. In addition, 27 endangered or threatened species find refuge here, including the Leatherback Sea Turtle, Steller sea lion, blue whale, and seabirds like the Marbled Murrelets.

San Francisco Whale Watching Cruises

Approaching the Farallon Islands Photo © Mark Hogan / flickr.com

San Francisco whale watching cruises head to the Farallon Islands, just 28 miles off the coast. The islands are little more than a collection of granite outcroppings, sometimes called the “Devil’s Teeth,” and are part of The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. They’re uninhabited, except for a few scientists, who are the only people allowed to set foot on the islands.

The Farallons are the largest seabird rookery in the continental United States, hosting some 300,000 birds, if you can imagine that. While 12 species breed here, at least 35 species of migratory birds visit the islands. Your chances of seeing something interesting are pretty good.

A variety of marine mammals live the good life here too. The place is crawling with harbor seals, and provides breeding grounds for the massive northern elephant seals and the threatened Steller sea lions, as well as California sea lions and northern fur seals.

Northern Elephant Seal  Photo: Robert Schwemmer, CINMS, NOAA

For even more excitement, the Farallones boasts one of the largest populations of Great White Sharks in the world.

But the biggest attractions here are the whales. Several species of whales are found in the waters near the Farallons, most commonly gray whales from fall through spring and humpback whales and blue whales in the summer and fall.

Other whales spotted here include Orcas (Killer Whales), Fin Whales, and Sperm Whales.

You can find a cruise to the Farallons in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay.

Land Based Whale Watching in San Francisco
Gray Whale Watching Season

For those who prefer to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, the annual gray whale migration provides a great opportunity for whale watching around San Francisco. The California gray whales travel closer to shore than the other species, and their numbers are far greater as well.

You’ll find several locations in the Bay Area where you can get an excellent view. Binoculars help, but it’s still a thrill without them.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse  Photo: Robert Schwemmer, CINMS, NOAA

  • Point Reyes National Seashore: One of the best spots for whale watching near San Francisco, the headlands here jut out into the ocean for 10 miles, offering a great view. Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock are the best spots. It gets pretty crowded during the peak migration season, so the Park Service closes the road on weekends and holidays and offers a bus shuttle service from the Drakes Beach parking lot instead.
  • Muir Beach Overlook: Here’s a relaxing way to enjoy the passing parade. This picnic area offers great views. When the weather is clear, you can see the Farallon Islands. Located just 18 miles to the north, Muir Beach is one of the closest locations for whale watching near San Francisco.
  • Point Bonita Lighthouse: Not the easiest place to get to, but the views are outstanding. Parking is limited, and the trail to the lighthouse is steep in places and unsuitable for those with disabilities. This is still an operating lighthouse, and is open to the public only on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.
  • Point Montara Lighthouse: Located 25 miles south of San Francisco, this historic lighthouse operates as a day use park, and the buildings have been restored for use as a hostel. The grounds offer great views for whale watching.
  • Pigeon Point Lighthouse: This lighthouse is still in active use, though you won’t be able to tour it until repairs are completed. However, the grounds are open for day use, and the restored buildings are used as a hostel. Besides whale watching, you can enjoy the tide pools, do some bird watching, or check out the Elephant seals at Ano Nuevo State Reserve 7 miles south. Pigeon Point is 50 miles south of San Francisco.

San Francisco Whale Watching Map

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