Whale watching is a popular tourist activity along the Pacific Coast from Washington to California, and it's no wonder. With some of the world's largest creatures migrating past coastal points, feeding near the coast and swimming in inlets, there are plenty of ocean creatures to see.
When to Go Whale Watching in California
Individual species have their seasons, but you can find whales off the California coast almost any time of year if you know when and where to look. Use this guide: When to Whale Watch in California to find out what you can see, where and when.
For regional whale-watching advice, links to whale watch cruises, local whale festivals and places to watch the migration from land, check the guides to:
California Whale Watching Cruises
Whale-watching cruises range from a two-hour jaunt out of a local harbor to multi-day cruises to Baja, Mexico. In winter, you can find whale-watching cruises leaving from harbors and marinas along the entire California coast. The quality of whale-watching trips varies widely and there are far too many for us to know every one of them in detail. Asking a few questions may help you find one that best meets your needs:
- Is the boat Coast Guard certified?
- Do they use a sighting network?
- Will a naturalist be on board? What is their training?
- How long will the trip last?
- What is available on the ship? Is there is a galley or snack bar, or should bring your own food?
- Are there plenty of places where you can sit down?
- Are they a member of a Whale Watching Operators Association (a group with stringent self-regulations)?
- Will they take you out again for free if you don't see a whale?
When you look at a company's whale sighting report, keep in mind that's for a whole day, which may include several trips. For example, on a day when all we saw were two grey whales, the tour company reported 7 Fin Whales, 2 Northbound Gray Whales, 30 Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins and 1000+ Common Dolphins.
Tips for an Enjoyable Whale-Watching Cruise
- Have the right expectations. Wild animals don't appear on command. Some days, you might not see a whale at all and on others, you'll see several.
- Dress warmly, in layers. Any time of year, it will be colder out on the water than it is on the shore. Plan for a temperature difference of 20-30°F.
- In winter, you may want to bring gloves or mittens (an extra pair of socks make a good emergency substitute).
- Even if it isn't raining, some of the smaller boats can kick up quite a spray. Bring a waterproof jacket with a hood.
- Wear sunscreen, no matter what the weather. Even if you sit in the shade, 60% of the sunlight bounces back up from the water's surface, and you can sunburn even under cloudy skies.
- The earlier in the day you go, the smoother the ride will be. The wind often picks up and causes choppiness later in the day.
- Even though the water's surface looks calm from shore, ocean swells can make the boat ride seem like a roller coaster. If you're prone to motion sickness, bring your favorite remedies, just in case - otherwise, you could be in for a miserable few hours.
- Wear sunglasses. The glare from the water can give you a headache.
- Wear a hat or visor to shade your eyes, but be sure it's secure. If the wind takes it, it's gone forever.
- Young children can get bored on a whale-watching trip. Bring along something to entertain them. And be sure they have enough warm clothing. The chilly wind on deck can dampen even the most excited child's enthusiasm.
- A lot of whale-watching guides suggest bringing binoculars, but we suspect those writers may have never been out on a boat looking for whales. Whales are sighted by scanning around, they appear and disappear quickly and in a moving boat, it's unlikely you'd get the binoculars on them before they were gone.
California Whale Watching From LandMigrating whales come closest to the parts of the coast that "stick out" the furthest. Any place with "Point" in its name is a good bet, as are most of the coastal lighthouses.
Your best bet for seeing a whale is to scan the ocean's surface, looking for a spout (a spray of water). Expect it to spout again in the direction it's moving (south in winter, north in spring). They move about 5 miles per hour, or the speed of a child on a bicycle. Keep binoculars handy and once you get good at figuring out where they are, you can get a closer look.
Grey whales normally swim in a cycle of 3 to 5 blows, 30 seconds apart, followed by a three- to six-minute dive, and they often show their tail flukes just before they dive. If they're swimming just below the surface and you're high enough to see the water's surface, they may leave a "trail" of circular calm spots on the surface as they pass, making them easier to track.
Good spots to look for whales from the California shore are summarized in the regional whale watching guides: