Best places to whale watch in California

California is known as one of the best places to see whales in the world! However, sightings vary depending on what part of California you go whale watching from. Gray whales migrate along the entire California coast between January and April so any whale watching tour during that time could potentially show you gray whales. Outside of the gray whale migration, many other species show up all along the entirety of California's coast to feed. Sightings of whales can vary from year to year and can fluctuate each year as well which makes a lot of it not 100% predictable. To keep it simple, the farther north you go in California, the more whales there are. Whales migrate south for the winter, most of the to Mexico or further south but then they travel but up the coast in search of food. The places with the most abundance of food are going to be in the colder water to the north and also where the most upwelling is, places with deep underwater canyons, currents, and shelves. This doesn't mean that whale watching is not great in Southern California, sometimes it is absolutely amazing too! But in Southern California it can be very hot or very cold with sightings while Northern California is predictable and pretty much always has life.

This guide is to help guide you to the best locations to see what you're hoping for and to give you the most accurate intel. Keep in mind, all the places listed here are great to go whale watching from and there's not really any bad place to get on a boat to see marine life here.

Humpback whales

Whale watching locations in order from best to worst for most whale sightings. Keep in mind, anywhere in California can be great for whale watching but this list refers to simply the most (accurate) sightings, disregarding fake reported sightings which are common in many Southern California whale watching tours. This list is the actual most accurate.

#1 - Monterey Bay

Known historically as the whale watching capital of the world, Monterey Bay features a very deep underwater canyon that creates lots of upwelling which brings in lots of nutrients that whales need to feed. There are whales throughout the year here but in the summer, humpbacks are here in the hundreds, feeding on anchovies. This bay is also the best place in California to see killer whales, they can potentially be seen here any time of year but the most killer whale sightings occur between April and May. Other common whales that can be seen here are blue whales (mid-late summer) and fin whales. If you really want to see whales and lots of them, this is absolutely the best place to go. The weather is known to be rough here but this is why there are so many whales, typically the only reason you wouldn't see any whales on a tour here is due to weather/rough seas.

Pros: Lots of whales

Cons: Rough seas

Best whale watch tours:

Monterey - Monterey Bay Whale Watch (Best tour in California)

Moss Landing - Sanctuary Cruises

Santa Cruz - Santa Cruz Whale Watching

#2 - Santa Barbara

The Santa Barbara Channel features lots of changing underwater topography with several islands surrounding it which creates lots of upwelling, In the summer, you can typically expect to see lots of humpback or blue whales depending on abundance of anchovies or krill. There can be times where there is not much whale action but generally there are whales to be seen here. Other whales that can commonly be sighted here are fin whales and minke whales plus the less common sighting of killer whales which are known to hang around the islands in search of pinnipeds. This area is known for having very nice sea conditions in the channel but can of course get rough depending on wind and swell.

Best whale watch tours:

Pros: Lots of whales, beautiful scenery

Cons: Not many options or departure times

Best whale watch tours:

Large boat - Condor Express

Small boat - Santa Barbara Whale Watch

#3 - Channel Islands

The Channel Islands area features lots of currents and changing underwater topography which supports lots of life. Many whale species can commonly be seen here like blue whales, humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, and gray whales. To reach Channel Islands, you'll be departing from Channel Islands Harbor or Oxnard.

Pros: Beautiful scenery around the islands

Cons:

Best whale watch tours:

Channel Islands Harbor and Oxnard - Island Packers

#4 - Morro Bay

Located along the central coast, this is a great area to see gray whales in the winter and humpback whales in the summer. This harbor is situated in the beautiful small town of Morro Bay which has everything you'd need with a relaxing atmosphere. This natural harbor features and huge rock known as a volcanic plug and serves as the icon of the area.

Pros: Beautiful area with iconic rock formation

Cons: Not many departure times

Best whale watch tour:

Morro Bay Whale Watch

#5 - Avila Beach

Located in a cove near Pismo Beach, this area features humpback whales that come in very close to shore to feed in anchovies. It's actually the best place in California to see whales from kayaks since they come in so close and you don't have to paddle out far. You can also see humpback whales from the pier here. The best time of year to whale watch here is in summer months.

Pros: Great whale watching within close proximity to shore

Cons: When there's no anchovies, there's not much whale sightings

Best whale watch tours:

From a boat - Avila Beach Whale Watching

From a kayak - Avila Beach Paddlesports

#6 - Long Beach

The best whale watching in Los Angeles County, the area surrounding Palos Verdes and San Pedro has a deep underwater canyon that creates upwelling and brings in lots of food for feeding whales. Throughout the summer, you can expect blue, fin, and humpback whales to be sighted on a off based on how much food is around.

Pros: Great whale watching close to the city, fast boats.

Cons: Lots of traffic getting here, lots of cargo ships which don't make great backgrounds.

Best whale watch tour:

Long Beach and San Pedro - Harbor Breeze Cruises

#7 - Newport Beach

Departing from a natural harbor that is at the end of a deep underwater canyon, many whales can be found traveling along this canyon feeding on krill and anchovies that get brought in by upwelling. This area is close to a second deep drop off just off the coast of Laguna Beach where many whales are found during summer months.

Pros: Typically great weather/calm seas thanks to the islands blocking swells. Easy access the deep water.

Cons: Difficult parking, lots of private boaters that don't know how to drive around whales.

Best whale watch tours:

Davey's Locker

Newport Coastal Adventure

Newport Landing

#8 - San Diego

The furthest south you can get in California, whale watching here can be great as whales make their way from down south to California to feed. Often, the San Diego tours will start seeing the whales first before the whales keep moving further north in search of better feeding opportunities. San Diego can sometimes be really good but short-lived based on food abundance.

Pros: Close proximity to city if you live in the area.

Cons: You have to travel a bit to get out to deep water, no good scenery, lots of private boaters that don't know how to drive around whales.

Best whale watch tours:

Large boat - San Diego Whale Watch

Large boat - Legacy Whale Watch

Very large boat - Flagship Cruises

Small boat - Adventure Whale Watch

#9 - Dana Point

The beautiful natural cove of Dana Point is an iconic landmark along the Southern California coast and has a long history of cowhide trading as well as hunting whales since spotters would be placed on the bluff in close proximity to this sheltered cove to launch boats from. Today, it serves as a great place for whale watching out of one of the newest artificial harbors in California, only being built in the early 1970's. A long underwater canyon that ends near the harbor creates lots of upwelling which can bring in blue whales, humpback whales, fin whales, and minke whales depending on which food source is in the area at any given time throughout the summer. Its close proximity to Laguna Beach is also great since there water gets deep very close to shore and attributes to most of the whale sightings which occur there. In more recent years, the Dana Point whale watching companies purchased the trademark "Whale Watching Capital Of The World" in an attempt to help with marketing but does not reflect actual sightings or help bring in more whales.

Pros: Typically great weather/calm seas thanks to the islands blocking swells. Easy access the deep water.

Cons: Lots of private boaters that don't know how to drive around whales.

Best whale watch tours:

Sailboats with underwater viewing pods & small boats - Dolphin Safari

Large boats - Dana Wharf

#10 - Oceanside

The small harbor of Oceanside is shared with Camp Pendleton which makes for a cool small town feel and cool sights of military ships. Humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, and minke whales can be seen here randomly throughout the summer feeding on krill and anchovies.

Pros: Easy parking, easy access to the harbor

Cons: Not many options or departure times

Best whale watch tour:

Large boats - Oceanside Whale Watch

#11 - Redondo Beach

Located in South Bay which makes for easy access to millions of people living in Los Angeles County, a whale watch tour here can take you out to see dolphins and whales when they come in close to shore. Unlike Marina Del Ray, a canyon does reach somewhat close to shore here which can bring in lots of life depending on ocean currents. This can be a good place to whale watch depending on these currents.

Pros: Close proximity to civilization

Cons: Very few departure times

Best whale watch tour:

Redondo Beach Whale Watch

#12 - Marina Del Ray

Located in South Bay which makes for easy access to millions of people living in Los Angeles County, a whale watch tour here can take you out to see dolphins and whales when they come in close to shore. This area is pretty shallow until you get out further into the bay so not a lot of whales are seen here.

Pros: Close proximity to civilization

Cons: Very few departure times, far distance to deep water canyons where all the life is.

Best whale watch tour:

Blue Moon Cruises