San Francisco Whale Watching

How to Watch Whales Around San Francisco, California

Whale Breaching Near the Farallon Islands
••• Whale Breaching Near the Farallon Islands. CC BY-NC 2.0/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Whale-watching in the San Francisco area centers on the region around the Gulf of the Farallons about 25 miles offshore, where whales cruise through a 20-mile wide ocean "highway."

While an occasional curious cetacean (that's science-speak for whale) may venture into San Francisco bay for a bit of sightseeing, they generally stay further off shore around San Francisco than they do in other parts of California.

For you, that means whale watching cruises can take up most of a day. In addition, it can be cold and windy and rough water can provoke motion sickness.

Best Time for Whale Watching in San Francisco

The kind of whales you're most likely to see depends on the season:

  • May through November: Humpback Whales
  • December through May: Gray Whales and Killer Whales
  • July through October: Blue Whales

To find out what all those wonderful creatures look like up close (and what they look like when you see them from a whale watching boat), check out the California Whale Watching Guide.

Whale Watching Cruises from San Francisco

If you check online ratings of San Francisco whale watching tours, you'll find some surprisingly low average ratings. Dig a bit deeper and you'll find that ratings are split. If the reviewer saw lots of whales and other sea animals, the rating is high. If not, it's low. Many reviewers also complain about the cost of the tour, no matter whether they liked it or not.

Our advice: Be realistic about how much you want to see the whales and whether you'd rather spend the cost of a tour on something else. Some tour operators offer a free return if you don't see any whales, but consider whether you'd really want to spend another day on the boat for that.

Very young children may not be allowed for safety reasons.

Unless otherwise noted, all of these tours offer a whale sighting guarantee - they'll let you go again at no charge.

  • San Francisco Whale Tours: Naturalist experts on board and use the code FMSA when making your reservation and the tour operator will make a donation to the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association.
  • San Francisco Bay Whale Watching: Naturalists on board. They offer a 5-hour coastal and a 6-hour Farallons tour
  • Oceanic Society Cruises: This non-profit groups offers limited sailing schedules, but have the best-trained naturalists. Their trips are longer than others and depart from Sausalito or San Francisco. Online reviewers who take their tours seem generally happier with the experience than with others. They do not offer a sighting guarantee.
  • California Whale Adventures: Operated by Captain Jacqueline Douglas, who has more than 30 years' experience. Their website does not mention a sighting guarantee.

Whale Watching from the Shore Around San Francisco

The best places for San Francisco area whale watching from land are along the coast south of the city.

What Watching North of San Francisco:

  • Marin Headlands: Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, try Rodeo Beach.
  • Point Reyes National Seashore provides a shuttle on weekends and holidays, which runs from Drake’s Beach to whale observation areas at the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock.

Whale Watching South of San Francisco:

South of town along CA Hwy 1, you'll find quite a few places to watch from land, listed from north to south:

  • Point Montara Lighthouse 
  • Look for places to stop along Highway 1 just south of Pescadero
  • Pigeon Point Lighthouse south of Half Moon Bay
  • Ano Nuevo State Reserve is best known for the elephant seals who have their pups on the beach every winter, but many of its overlooks are also good places to look for whales
  • A few whale watching cruises go out from Half Moon Bay, but they are unlikely to go as far north as the more interesting Farallons.

How to Enjoy San Francisco Whale Watching

No matter where you watch the whales, the basics are the same.

Get tips for picking the best cruise and ways to have the most enjoyable experience in the California Whale Watching Guide.