Whale Watching 101

A guide to viewing some of Earth’s largest animals, just off the Central Coast

by Michele Roest

The California coastline has some of the best places in the world for whale watching. The clean, nutrient-rich waters offer prime feeding areas for many species of whales, and are part of a migration pathway that has been used for thousands of years. Besides the gray whales, who perform their astounding annual 10,000-mile round-trip migration, there are also frequent sightings of humpback, blue and killer whales. Many species of smaller whales and dolphins also travel in nearshore ocean waters.

Pacific White Side Dolphins frolic in the wake of a boat. (Photo by Lottie Keenan)

Whales are hard to spot — which is surprising, considering their size. The average adult gray whale is about 45 feet long, or about the length of the average school bus. Humpback whales range in length from 40 to 50 feet. Blue whales, the largest animals on the planet, can reach lengths of 80 to 100 feet. Observing these behemoths of the sea can be awe-inspiring. Whether you are spotting whales from a high overlook or promontory, or feeling the thrill of a boat ride, you can get terrific views of these mammals and their activities right here off the Central Coast.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) lunge feeding in the Santa Barbara Channel, near Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands

When to watch

Before going on a whale watching adventure, be sure to check with local whale watching or natural history organizations to confirm that whales have been spotted in the area.

Gray whales travel annually along the coast of California, between their breeding areas in Baja California and their feeding areas in Alaskan waters. In the fall, they are most likely to be seen heading south towards Baja, where pregnant females give birth to calves in late December. Gray whales travel north from January through May to reach prime feeding areas in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, where they spend the summer, feeding on abundant amphipods and krill.

Humpback whales lunge, feeding on small bait fish congregating near the surface. (Photo by Liz Vernand)

The gray whale migration is well documented and a significant part of the cultural history of North America. Native peoples hunted gray whales for food and used whale bones for tools. Commercial hunting for whales at sea and from shore (called shore whaling) was common until the late 1800s, and the gray whale was on the verge of extinction. Since protection began in the 20th century, gray whale populations have rebounded.

Whales can catch a lot of air — and make a massive splash! (Photo by SloCoastPix)

Humpback whales are summer visitors, mostly seen from late March to September. Blue whales can be seen in late spring and summer. Orcas, often called killer whales, may be seen offshore at any time of year.

Shore viewing

When looking for whales from shore, select a high point of land that provides a broad view of the ocean. Select a time when the ocean is calm and the sun is not directly in your eyes. Mornings are usually the best time.

It’s spring on the islands too! Remote Santa Rosa turns vibrant shades or green, yellow, purple and orange. (Photo by Doug Mangum)

Scan the horizon and wait to see a blow or spout — the puff of water ejected through the blowhole when the whale exhales. Blows rise six or more feet above the surface of the water (some blows can be as high as 30 feet!). They usually linger for a few seconds before disappearing. Once whale blows are spotted, use binoculars to get a close-up view of the whale’s back or tail. In the springtime, the blows of cow-calf pairs traveling slowly northward may be spotted — the large spout of the mother, and smaller spout of the calf.

Whale acrobatics

Humpback and gray whales are known for breaching — leaping clear out of the water, then falling back into the water with a resounding thump and splash that can be heard (and seen) for miles. Other behaviors visible from shore are lob-tailing, when a whale forcefully slaps its flukes on the surface of the water; spyhopping, when the whale’s head rises out of the water as much as eight to 10 feet; and sounding, when a whale prepares for a deep dive. When preparing to dive, the ridge of the whale’s back will appear above the surface of the water, usually ending with a show of the tail flukes.

Whale watching from a boat

Whale watching is a great combination of adventure and ecotourism, and is readily available in coastal California. For the adventurer, nothing beats a whale watching trip on a boat; they offer much closer views of whales, as well as a myriad of other interesting wildlife including birds, fish, dolphins, and other marine mammals. Boat excursion options vary from large boat charters carrying 50 or more people to small private groups of six or less.

A group of lucky onlookers gets up close as a whale spouts just off the bow. (Photo by Tim Hauf)

Whale watching tours usually include a naturalist who is knowledgeable about whales and other marine life. The naturalist will explain details of whale behavior and activities. Whale watching boat operators know the laws protecting marine wildlife, and how to avoid getting too close or harassing a whale.

What else to see

There are many other interesting animals to see on a whale watching trip. Dolphins may come over to a boat and ride the wave generated by the moving vessel. This offers amazing opportunities to see dolphins up close. Offshore trips may catch sight of seabirds like petrels and albatrosses. Trips that explore remote islands may come across sharks, seals, sea lions, and even the occasional sea turtle.

False killer whales swim close to an Island Packers charter.

Boat safety

Boat-based whale watching trips may not be for everyone; seasickness is a common consequence of being on a moving boat, and small children and elderly people may not be able to keep their footing easily when a boat is in motion. Always listen to the captain and follow orders regarding safety.

A pod of dolphins pass Anacapa’s iconic lighthouse and natural arch. (Photo by Steve Munch)

Before you go

When planning a day of whale watching, be sure to bring these essentials for comfort and safety:

∗Sunscreen and a hat
∗Layers of clothing for changing weather
∗Plenty of water
∗Whale or Nature Watching Guide
∗Patience (on any day, the whales may be hard to spot)

Michele Roest is a biologist and naturalist with a lifelong love for California’s Central Coast.

A whale’s fluke waves at onlookers as it descends into the depths. (Photo by David Beeninga)

Whale Watching Venues By County

Ventura County

Channel Islands Dolphin Adventures: 3600 Harbor Blvd, Oxnard
(805) 263-5168 or www.channelislandsdolphinadventures.com

• Channel Islands Sportfishing: 4151 S. Victoria Ave, Oxnard
(805) 382-1612 or www.channelislandssportfishing.com

Island Packers Whale Watching tours:1691 Spinnaker Drive, Suite 105B, Ventura
(805) 642-1393 or www.islandpackers.com

• Channel Islands Whale Watching: 4151 Victoria Ave, Oxnard
(805) 382-2900 or www.channelislandswhalewatching.com

Channel Islands Parasail: 3600 Harbor Blvd, Oxnard
(805) 462-7696 or www.channelislandsparasail.com

• Doug’s Channel Island Tours: Marine Emporium Landing, 3600 Harbor Blvd, Oxnard
(805) 450-7757 or www.gotourchannelislands.com

Santa Barbara County

• Sunset Kidd Sailing Cruises & Whale Watching: 125 Harbor Way #13, Santa Barbara
(805) 962-8222 or www.sunsetkidd.com

Condor Express Whale Watching: 301 West Cabrillo Blvd, Santa Barbara Harbor
(805) 882-0088 or www.condorexpress.com

• Double Dolphin Cruises: 302 W Cabrillo Blvd, Santa Barbara
(805) 962-2826 or www.sbsail.com/double-dolphin-private-cruises

• Sea Landing: 301 W. Cabrillo Blvd, Santa Barbara
(805) 963-3564 or www.sealanding.net

San Luis Obispo County

• SLO.TOURS: 3975 Avila Beach Dr, San Luis Obispo
(805) 705-8681 or https://slo.tours

• Morro Bay Whale Watching & Subsea Tours: 699 Embarcadero, Morro Bay
(805) 772-9643 or www.morrobaywhalewatching.com

• Avila Beach Whale Watching: 3950 Avila Beach Dr, Avila Beach
(805) 540-4667 or www.avilabeachwhalewatching.com

• Morro Bay Landing: 1215 Embarcadero, Suite A, Morro Bay
(805) 771-5500 or www.morrobaylanding.com

Virg’s Landing: 1169 Market Ave, Morro Bay
(805) 772-1222 or www.virgslanding.com