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Each year, thousands of gray whales embark on a grand 6,000-mile journey from Alaska to Mexico—and you can have front-row seats to a part of it, either on their way to Mexico or back. The gray whales aren’t alone on these travels, either. Whale watching in California also entails sightings of humpbacks, dolphins, blue whales, orcas, and other exciting sea creatures migrating south. So, grab your binoculars and get ready for an incredible road trip; whale-watching season in California is officially right around the corner.
When is whale-watching season in California?
You’ll experience cool sightings of marine life anytime you decide to visit the destinations on this list. But for an almost guaranteed sighting of whales, you should know the optimal times to go.
Whale watching season in Southern California is optimal from January through April if you’re interested in seeing gray whales, humpback whales, dolphins, and sea lions. If you’d rather see blue and finback whales, head to the SoCal coast from May to September.
Whale-watching season in Northern California also differs for different species. If you want to see gray whales and orcas, plan your trip between December and May. Humpbacks are more commonly seen from May through November. Your best chances of seeing blue whales are between July and October.
Another cool way to spot these magnificent creatures is to participate in California whale-watching festivals that take place every year. The Monterey Whalefest and the Dana Point Festival of Whales are a few of the state's most popular annual whale-watching events.
Where to go whale watching in Northern California
1. Point Lobos State National Reserve
Everyone knows that whale watching in Monterey is as good as it gets—and Point Lobos State National Reserve is further proof as to why. Often visited for whale watching in California, this can’t-miss state park boasts breathtaking beauty, fascinating wildlife, great hiking trails, and a team of friendly and knowledgeable volunteers who help you have the best experience possible.
The water surrounding Point Lobos is home to sea lions, harbor seals, elephant seals; it is also a year-round stopping point for orcas. You don’t even have to go on a boat to spot whales at this state park in Carmel-by-the-Sea—they are clearly visible from the shore. While you’re here, make sure to drop by the Whalers Cabin, a historic building that has been restored to look like a true 1800s replica of the cabins inhabited by Japanese and Chinese fishermen hunting for whales.
2. Moss Landing
Also in Monterey County, Moss Landing is another top spot for whale watching in California. During peak season, close to 7,000 whales swim by the waters of Monterey Bay, attracting year-round whale-watching cruises. These tours are led by experienced captains who are delighted to introduce visitors to the fascinating and beautiful creatures who call the California waters home.
Moss Landing whale-watching tours also entail sightings of harbor seals, sea lions, dolphins, elephant seals, and other cool sea creatures. Sea Goddess Whale Watch and Blue Ocean Whale Watch are two awesome companies organizing tours that’ll definitely make your whale-watching trip a memorable experience.
3. Half Moon Bay
Whale watching in Half Moon Bay is another great experience if you don’t want to leave the shore. This NorCal destination is packed with beautiful trails, panoramic views, and great recreational activities for those looking for a quick escape from the city. Plan your next getaway to Half Moon Bay on a calm day, so you can get a glimpse of the whales from the waters as clearly as possible. Once you get there, head to Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park for prime viewing seats to the migration. Don’t forget to take your camera with you—you’ll snap some truly awesome pics.
If you’d like to get up closer to the whales, Oceanic Society provides awesome half-day tours from January through April that’ll do just that. You’ll also be supporting ocean conservation by taking part in this trip, as Oceanic Society is a nonprofit that aims to build a healthier environment for these magnificent sea creatures.
4. Salt Point State Park
Salt Point State Park overlooks the Salt Point State Marine Conservation Area—a superb spot for whale watching in California. With a network of hiking trails running parallel to the Pacific Ocean and panoramic views around every turn, it’s harder not to spot whales while traveling here during the right season. A great trail to check out for whale watching is the three-mile Salt Point Trail, an easy hike with rewarding vistas.
Looking to take your whale watching trip up a notch? Turn your half-day adventure in Sonoma into a weekend getaway, and reserve a campsite in advance to stay overnight at one of the park’s campgrounds. No need to thank us later.
5. Bodega Bay
While gray whales are most easily seen in late winter and spring on their way north, they can be seen year-round along the Sonoma Coast. Plan a getaway to Bodega Bay and take your hiking shoes with you—this is going to be an active adventure. The 1.7-mile Bodega Head Trail, which borders the edge of the peninsula, offers top-notch views of Sonoma Coast’s rugged beauty.
After getting your desired dose of whale watching in Northern California, you can take advantage of the 360-degree views and sit down for a picnic near the water, taking in the beautiful NorCal sunset while listening to the relaxing sounds of the crashing waves.
6. West Cliff Drive
If you’re keener on making whale watching in California a quick drive-by activity, then this is the spot for you. West Cliff Drive is a picturesque route that parallels the Santa Cruz coast. Park your car, and walk or bike along this short trail to see gray whales and dolphins swimming by without having to get out on the water. This is also a great spot to go tide pooling, watch surfers (or surf yourself), and spend a relaxing day by the beach in Northern California.
If you have a bit of extra time to spare, you won’t regret stopping by the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse nearby. The museum is a great place to learn about the history of surfing and how it came to California from Hawaii.
Top spots for whale watching in Southern California
7. Channel Islands
Experience whale watching in Southern California at its finest by heading to the scenic Channel Islands. Sign up for a whale-watching cruise that takes you from Ventura to the string of islands, and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have an eventful ride. Out of the 78 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the world, 29 have been spotted in the waters near the Channel Islands, and you too can be witness to them when you visit from December through April.
Channel Islands Whale Watching and Island Packers are two companies that organize great whale-watching trips in and around the Channel Islands area. After wrapping up whale watching in Ventura, take advantage of the land of sea, sand, and surf by exploring the offshore areas of this sunny SoCal destination.
8. Cabrillo National Monument
We are in the midst of the perfect time to go gray whale watching in San Diego. Head to the western overlooks of Cabrillo National Monument, and you’ll witness incredible panoramas from the park’s Whale Overlook and Old Point Loma Lighthouse—some of the best viewing spots along the San Diego coastline. If you’ve forgotten your handy binoculars at home, the visitor center has a limited number that you can borrow during whale-watching season.
9. Dana Point
Whale watching in Dana Point is more than spectacular—it’s world-class. The coastal town is home to one of the greatest concentrations of dolphins and blue whales in the world. By booking a whale-watching cruise from Dana Point Harbor, you’ll be able to see gray whales and other amazing sea creatures in their natural habitat just minutes away from shore.
10. Long Beach
For warmer-weather whale watching in California, go to Long Beach in October, which is an optimal time to see migrating whales and other marine life. Whale watching in Long Beach exposes you to majestic sights of Pacific gray whales, fin whales, humpback whales, orcas, blue whales, and more.
Book your trip with Harbor Breeze Cruises, a company that’s been organizing whale-watching tours for decades, and you’ll have a grand time. The three-hour tours run daily from Rainbow Harbor and include tour guides on board, so you can have a fun, educational, and memorable whale-watching experience in SoCal.
11. Newport Beach
Are you visiting SoCal and looking for an oceanic adventure of a lifetime? Whether by land or sea, whale watching in Newport Beach is one of the top activities you can do on your trip. View giant blue whales during the summer and fall and gray whales in the winter and spring. Whenever you visit, make sure you have a camera on hand—you’ll want to snap a lot of pics.
There are numerous companies organizing whale-watching trips in Southern California from Newport Beach. Newport Landing Whale Watching and Davey’s Locker are both very well rated and organize guided daily trips almost year-round.
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