42 Places to Go Whale Watching in California: The Ultimate Guide

February 21, 2021


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Ah, whales: these majestic, enormous marine mammals have been immortalized in our culture in everything to Moby Dick to Finding Nemo. There was once a whole industry devoted to murdering them; now there’s a movement devoted to saving them. Any way you look at it, we’ve been obsessed with whales, for like, a really long time.

California is the best whale watching destination in the United States, and it’s also the first: whale watching as an organized activity dates back to 1950 when the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego was declared a public spot for the observation of Gray Whales.

Each year, about 20,000 gray whales make an epic 12,000-mile round trip journey from the Bering Sea all the way down the Pacific coast to Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

This annual swim makes the entire California coast a perfect place to witness one of the most amazing wildlife migrations on the planet. And in this post, you’ll discover the best destinations for whale watching in California, plus everything you need to know to plan your trip!

Psst: Planning a California coast road trip? We’ve got a few other posts you’ll want to take a look at, or click here to see all of our California travel guides.

We’ve also created a free, printable Highway One road trip itinerary! Most of the best places to go whale watching are also some. of the best places to stop along the Pacific Coast Highway. Tie them all together in one epic trip with this itinerary!

Printable Highway One Itinerary

This FREE printable Highway One itinerary will help guide you on your road trip! Plus, we’ve included our San Francisco walking tour, and we’ll send you some helpful tips to plan your trip.

We also have a Highway One podcast episode! A humanist cult, a Danish hideaway, a gravitational anomaly, towering trees, a spoiled rich kid’s castle, clothing-optional hot springs, and the cutest (and weirdest) animals imaginable: in this episode, we cover everything you need to plan your trip up the California Coast – and all the weird history you never knew along the way.

Listen below or just click here! Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss new episodes.

2021 Update: Heads up – storms in February washed out a big chunk of Highway One in Big Sur. Unfortunately this happens every few years – the precarious nature of the highway is part of what makes it such a landmark! But before your trip, you should be aware of any detours or road closures and plan accordingly. The chunk of highway that’s closed currently allows you to visit Big Sur – but not drive through it. You’ll have to take a detour on Highway 101 (connecting around Cambria) and Highway 68 (connecting around Monterey) if you’re driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Humpback Whale in Monterey Bay, California.
Humpback Whale in Monterey Bay, California. You can see several kinds of whales in California, including humpbacks!

California Whale Watching FAQ’s

Before you pack your binoculars and head out in search of whales, you might have a few questions about whale watching in California. We’ve covered everything you’ll need to know before your trip!

Which kinds of whales can be seen in California?

There are a wide variety of whales that make their way past the California coast on their annual journey! Here are some of the giant sea puppies you might see paddling their way past you on your whale watching excursion:

The largest migration and most commonly spotted whale in California, Gray Whales can reach lengths of 45′ and are gray with white mottling. They migrate slowly and blow 3-5 times before fluking up and diving for 2-7 minutes – which makes them easy to spot!

Gray whales may travel alone or in pods with up to 10 whale buddies. Gray whales start swimming north from Mexico in January, generally passing the coast off of San Diego in February and March when they return to their summer home. You’ll spot them closest to the shore when traveling south, in particular between Monterey and San Diego.

The incredible Blue Whale is the largest animal ever to live on earth – EVER – reaching lengths of 80 to 100′ with a blow of up to 30′.  Sadly, Blue Whales are endangered with only about 10,000 existing in the world – 2,200 of which can be seen in California.

To see a Blue whale, wait until spring and summer between July and October, when several hundred Blue whales migrate into southern California waters to feed – not unlike my family descending upon our favorite Indian Buffet on our annual trip to my wife’s hometown.

These adorable black-and-white pandas of the sea are a rare sight, as only about 200 Orcas have been identified off the coast of California. You’ll typically see Orcas in pods of 8-20, or possibly up to 100.

By the way, don’t let their nickname scare you – although they may hunt Gray Whales, California Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, and Elephant Seals, they’re probably not going to hurt you unless you capture them, keep them locked in a cage, and force them to perform for crowds of people (ahem).

Although they are an endangered species due to being hunted to near extinction, the Humpback whale can still be seen off the coast of central California between May and November.

We’ve heard reports of curious, friendly Humpback whales approaching a boat to circle and rub up against it, spyhop within several feet of the boat, roll on its side and extend a flipper toward the boat, and even tilt its head with an eye open to throw a suspicious look at everyone on board. To which I say, I would literally die, that is the cutest thing I’ve ever heard.

A fast-travelling whale that can typically only be seen far offshore, the Fin whale is the second-largest species on Earth – after the majestic Blue Whale, Queen of Whales – reaching lengths of up to 85′.

Known as the Greyhound of whales, their slender body is built like a racing yacht and can surpass the speed of the fastest ocean steamship. So don’t blink, or you might miss one zooming by!

A comparatively small baleen whale reaching only 30′ in length (“small“), Minke Whales do not have a visible blow and usually exhibit erratic surfacing patterns, making them harder to spot without the help of a guide. If you do see one, they are can be identified by their large dorsal fin and dark body.

Street art in Morro Bay, California.
Whale mural at Otter Rock Cafe in Morro Bay, California

When is California whale watching season?

Whale watching is a year-round activity in California – no matter what time of year you plan your trip, your chances of spotting a whale are high!

However, timing your visit to overlap with seasonal whale migration periods will give you the best opportunities for viewing these giant creatures.

In the winter, around December, gray whales, humpback whales, and orcas head south in search of warmer water. And then during the spring, they come back north again to enjoy the warm weather. Not unlike roughly half the population of Florida.

What that means is that you’ll get the best opportunity for seeing migrating gray whales, orcas, and humpback whales in California between December and April.

If you visit between May and September, you’ll get a chance to see blue whales and finback whales; and minke whales can be seen from October through December.

  • California Travel Tip: In my opinion as a born-and-raised Californian, the best time to take a California road trip is in February & March! The winter rains clear out and give way to pleasant warm weather, wildflower season, vibrantly green hills, gushing waterfalls, and both the annual Monarch butterfly migration as well as elephant seal pupping season that just happens to overlap with the seasonal whale migration in both location & time of year! You’ll be able to see all three of these California wildlife stars in many of the destinations included below.
Whale watching tour in California
You don’t need a boat or a whale watching tour to spot whales in California, but we do recommend them if you want to see them up close. Original photo credit

Do I need a boat to go whale watching in California?

Absolutely not! You’ll be able to spot whales spouting, breaching, and sometimes even fluking from land even at a far distance. And if you’ve got a decent pair of binoculars like these, you may even be able to identify the type of whale – here’s a guide on how to identify whales.

That said, the best whale watching experience by far is up close and personal, with a guide who can help you identify whales and can safely take you close enough to see the whale in detail.

We’ve included options for both land and boat-based whale watching for each destination below.

What should I wear whale watching in California?

If you’re planning to go whale watching on land, you don’t need anything special other than a good pair of binoculars!

But if you go on a whale watching tour, there are a few things that will make your experience a lot more enjoyable:

  • Warm Layers: Not only is much of the California Coast notoriously chilly, but the Pacific Ocean is a freezing cold abyss of pure ice, and its ocean spray is … not pleasant. Assume that it will feel 10 degrees colder and much windier out on the sea. Bring a warm layer and a rain jacket to prevent yourself from being chilled to the bone – and maybe even a warm hat or gloves, just in case.
  • Sun Protection: You’ll be spending time outdoors with all kinds of UV rays bouncing off the water, so you’ll want to load up on sun protection! Bring a pair of sunglasses that won’t fall off your face when you peer over the boat, a hat with a string in case of wind, and a biodegradable mineral sunscreen, because if nothing else, your whale watching experience will hopefully increase your enthusiasm for ocean conservation.
  • Nausea Medication: One word: DRAMAMINE. Actually, 3 words: Non-Drowsy Dramamine. It is a LIFESAVER, whether you’re prone to seasickness or not!
  • Binoculars: We cannot overstate the importance of bringing binoculars to improve your whale watching experience! Because by the time someone passes you theirs to take a look, that giant majestic beast will have probably already disappeared back into the depths.
  • Waterproof Camera: Sure, maybe your phone will work just fine, but maybe you’re too clumsy to be trusted with not dropping an expensive tiny computer into the ocean (lookin’ at you, my darling wife). This waterproof action camera is way cheaper than a GoPro or phone and, most importantly, comes with a wristband.

What is the best time of day to go Whale Watching?

You’ll be able to see whales all day long, but the clearest weather and best whale sightings usually occur during morning hours.

How much do whale watching tours cost?

In California, whale watching tours range from about $20 per person up to around $100, depending on what’s included, the size of the boat, and how long your tour lasts.

Personally, we prefer smaller, conservation-focused eco-friendly tours that include a snack, so we’ve done the research to find a few good options at each of the spots recommended below.

And on that note…

Where to go Whale Watching in California

Here are the best places for whale watching in California. We’ve included suggestions for both Northern California whale watching and whale watching in Southern California!

Point Arena Lighthouse, one of the best Pacific Coast Highway stops on a California Road Trip and an excellent place for whale watching in California.
Behind me is Point Arena Lighthouse, one of the best Pacific Coast Highway stops on a California Road Trip and an excellent place for whale watching in California.

Mendocino

Take the Pacific Coast Highway all the way up north, and a few hours past San Francisco you’ll arrive in Mendocino, a beautiful coastal town and one of California’s best wine countries! This is one of our favorite places to take a weekend getaway, as well as one of the best places to go whale watching in California.

Along the way from Baja to Alaska, the whales do a swim-by off the Mendocino Coast, offering unforgettable opportunities to see them spouting, breaching, and diving as they make their annual journey north.

  • Travel Tip: Plan your trip around March to enjoy the Mendocino Whale Festivals! The towns of Mendocino, Little River, and Fort Bragg all host special events, including walks, talks, and special boat charters.

High elevation vantage points along the coast are good spots to view whales, particularly on calm mornings. Favorite spots near town include coast-hugging trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park, and at the scenic Point Arena Lighthouse.

Here are. a few more spots to go whale watching in Mendocino:

Travel Tip: To take full advantage of the beautiful Mendocino coastline, we recommend booking an AirBnB with stunning coastal views. You can walk to Mendocino Headlands State Park right from this budget-friendly cottage, or just stay in and whale-watch from almost every room in this beautiful oceanfront cottage! Check out our Mendocino weekend getaway guide to make the most of your trip.

Whale watching in San Francisco, California
You’re unlikely to see a whale swim underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s not unheard of. (Psst: this phenomenal view, excluding my adorable wife, can be seen at Battery Spencer!)

San Francisco & the Bay Area

Yep, you can go whale watching in the San Francisco Bay Area – right near where we live (in Oakland)! Although the occasional whale finds its way right under the Golden Gate Bridge into the San Francisco Bay, the best whale watching near San Francisco is actually outside of the city.

The Farallon Islands

During the summer and fall seasons, you can book a guided tour to the Farallon Islands, a group of remote uninhabited islands 27 miles off the coast of San Francisco where humpbacks, blue whales, sperm whales, and orcas feed.

You can book a guided tour with the Oceanic Society. Whale watching cruises to the Farallon Islands typically leave San Francisco’s Pier 39 at 8 a.m. and return by mid-afternoon.

In addition to whales, you’ll have a chance to see many other marine critters, including endangered and threatened species, in the islands and surrounding waters.



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