California Whale Watching

Where, When and How to Go Whale Watching on the California Coast

Whale Watching Near Monterey
••• Whale Watching Near Monterey. Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images

In California, whale watching is a popular tourist activity as it is anywhere along the Pacific Coast, and it's no wonder why. With some of the world's largest mammals migrating past coastal points, feeding near the coast and swimming in inlets, you'll find 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 the guide to when to whale watch in California to find out what you can see, where and when.

For regional advice, links to 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 them 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 you 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?
  • Besides all the technical details, customer experience is also important. You can check ratings for whale watching companies at Yelp or Tripadvisor.

When you look at a company's whale sighting report, keep in mind that the report is for a whole day, which may include several trips. For example, on a day when one excursion saw two gray whales, the tour company reported 7 Fin Whales, 2 Northbound Gray Whales, 30 Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins and 1000+ Common Dolphins.

Is a Whale Watching Cruise Worth Your Time?

On the best of days, anyone who was aboard would answer a resounding yes to that question. However, whale watches usually take up hours of time that could be spent seeing something else. On a day with only a few sightings (or even worse, no sightings), it's probably not the best use of your time.

It's harder to answer that question for everyone because we all have different priorities, but these suggestions can help you make the best decision for yourself. Check very recent sighting reports from one or two companies in the area you want to leave from. Think about how important a chance of seeing a whale is to you compared to other things you could be doing.

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. It will be colder out on the water than it is on the shore any time of year. Plan for a temperature difference of 20-30°F.
  • In winter, you may want to bring gloves or mittens. If you forgot to pack them, 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.
  • If you're prone to motion sickness, bring your favorite remedies, just in case. Even though the water's surface looks calm from shore, ocean swells can make the boat ride seem like a roller coaster.  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 with a clip or chin strap. 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 articles suggest bringing binoculars, but 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 Land

Migrating 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 and look for a spout (a spray of water). Keep watching in all directions, looking for it to spout again. That will tell you the direction it's moving. In general, the migrating whales are going south in winter and 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 face 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: Whale Watching from land in Monterey, Whale Watching from the coast in San Francisco and Whale Watching from the beach in San Diego