Blue whales are the largest mammal ever known to have lived on Earth. They can stretch up to 100 feet and can weigh more than 200 tons. Can you just take a second to imagine what that looks like to see a whale of that size spouting out air and water some 9 meters in the air? Envision this massive creature appearing on one side of your little whale-watching boat and popping up on the other. Realize how it could tip you into the water if it wanted to. And when you go whale watching in California? You don’t even have to imagine. You’ll have the chance to see this living giant, along with a host of other creatures, in real life.
After 4 years of living in San Francisco, I’d never even made it down to Monterey. When I eventually got to planning California road trip, complete with national parks, coastline, endless roads, and roadside attractions, a little whale watching in Monterey was definitely in the cards.
Are you thinking about going whale watching in California? Check out the best places for whale watching, when to go, and what to expect below!
Best Whale Watching in California
California is undoubtedly one of the world’s best places for whale watching. Gray whales, orcas, humpbacks, minke, finback, and blue whales migrate off the California coast throughout the year, so you’re sure to spot at least one species on a whale-watching excursion. Here’s the lowdown on the best places for whale watching in California.
Monterey Bay is California’s hub for all things aquatic. You can go out for a whale-watching excursion year-around and expect to see migrating whales, plus tons of resident marine life like turtles, sea lions, and sea otters. The best time to go whale watching in Monterey is mid-December through mid-April (gray whales, dolphins, and orcas) or mid-April through mid-December (humpbacks, blue whales, dolphins, and orcas). This is where I ended up going, and you can read more about the experience below!
With more than 27 species of whales and dolphins that visit every year, whale watching in Santa Barbara is an awesome way to spend your vacation. The best time to go whale watching in Santa Barbara is between mid-December and April (gray whales) to see gray whales making their northward migration, but you can also see whales between May and November (blue whales, finback whales, and humpback whales).
While Orange County may be best known for its TV namesakes, Newport Bay supports a thriving ecosystem with all kinds of marine life. With permanently clear skies and waters, you can see the whales really close here. The best time to go whale watching in Newport is similarly between December-March (gray whales) but you can also go between April-November.
Just off the coast of San Diego, you can spot whales on the final stretch of their journey from Alaska to Baja. The best time to go whale watching in San Diego is Mid-December – April (gray whales) and mid-June to September (blue whales). And if you’re not keen to plan a whole vacation around whale watching, you’ll be glad to know there are tons of other things to do in San Diego, too.
An Experience with Whale Watching in Monterey
Monterey Bay is known to have some of the most biodiversity of any temperate region. The waters are rich with a variety of marine life ranging from otters to elephant seals to humpback whales. Here’s a bit more about my experience whale watching with Monterey Bay Whale Watch, plus a few recommendations for the best-rated operators in Monterey.
About Monterey Bay Whale Watch
We headed out on a morning departure with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. The trip started off at 9 am and we got tossed by the waves for about 90 minutes before getting to our whale watching spot – Submarine Canyon. The naturalist promised we would see whales, but we saw a blue whale sooner than I could have expected. It was some ~82ft long, and we watched it come up for air and dip down beneath the water for a while before it suddenly disappeared. Over the course of the tour, we saw at least a dozen more blue whales, gray whales, and humpbacks. If you’re looking to plan a whale watching trip in Monterey, here are a few details about their trips:
- When: Morning trips from 9am-1pm, afternoon trips from 2pm-5pm, evening trips from 5:30pm-8:30pm, or all-day trips from 8am-4pm. Wildlife tends to be the most active in the early morning and evening. I recommend getting an early start to have the best experience!
- Boat Type: A 65′ catamaran (125 passengers), a 70′ single hull vessel (69 passengers) with inside and outside, or a 55′ single hull vessel (48 passengers). Monterey Bay Whale Watch is one of the bigger whale watching tour operators in Monterey. While we got lucky with a half-full boat, I’d recommend finding a tour operator that runs smaller group departures for a more up-close-and-personal experience.
- Cost: $51.00 for a half-day and $125 for a full day. Discounts are common, so check Groupon and similar sites before booking!
Best Whale Watching Tours in Monterey
Blue Ocean Whale Watching on Monterey Bay tours are primarily led by the owners who are both naturalists and captains. Their boat holds up to 47 passengers and best of all, respect for wildlife is one of their core values. Read reviews on Blue Ocean Whale Watching here.
Discovery Whale Watch gets excellent views, in part because they run smaller group trips than some of the other operators. Read reviews or snag a tour with Discovery Whale Watch here.
Chris’ Fishing and Whale Watching (perhaps obviously) specializes in both fishing and whale watching tours. They claim to have the oldest charter company on the peninsula and the most experienced skippers in Northern California. Probably the best part is that their boats are a bit smaller so you won’t feel crowded. Read reviews for Chris’ Fishing & Whale Watching here.
Monterey Bay Whale Watch is the most established whale watching operator in Monterey Bay. Their tours are led by marine biologists and they have an impressive fleet of large boats and frequent departures. Read reviews about Monterey Bay Whale Watch here.