California’s coastline is the perfect spot to catch several whale migration seasons – gray whales from January through April, orcas between February and May, and humpbacks between April and December. Even from land, you’re likely to see them spouting, slapping their tails (known as “lobtailing”) or even breaching.
The Chronicle reported that humpback whale migration patterns have changed so much that local whale watching tours don’t even need to leave the Bay for a chance at spotting one. Whereas most whales used to be spotted outside of the Bay along the coast, higher ocean temps and whale populations have driven more whales into the SF Bay itself.
We’re now entering gray whale migration season, so keep your eyes peeled for these fascinating animals off the coast. Read on for some of the best places for whale watching from land, along with a handful of boat tours where you can get up close and personal.
Whale watching near San Francisco
1. San Francisco
- SF Whale Tours (temporarily closed for maintenance as of January 2023): Take off from Pier 39 and enjoy views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge on your way out to the Pacific Ocean.
- Oceanic Society: This group takes trips out to the Farallon Islands for humpback season from April-November.
2. Marin Headlands
Especially from the Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail, which has some of the best ocean views in the Bay.
3. Pigeon Point Lighthouse
This is one of the tallest lighthouses in the country. It’s surrounded by fascinating tidepools and has a hostel if you want to stay overnight.
4. Half Moon Bay
Some local sportfishing companies that also offer whale-watching excursions:
Best viewing near Point Montara Light Station, which is also a hostel.
7. Año Nuevo State Park
South of SF on the way to Santa Cruz, this beach is also a hotspot for elephant seals year-round.
Whale watching north of SF
8. Point Reyes
Point Reyes is one of the best whale viewing spots in NorCal, being that the peninsula extends further into whale territory than other spots on the coast. Stake out near Chimney Rock and the Point Reyes Lighthouse, or grab a shuttle between viewing areas. Don’t forget to spot the elephant seals at Drakes Beach!
Additional viewing points north of Point Reyes include Salt Point State Park, Fort Ross, and Bodega Head. Learn about Sonoma whale watching tours here.
If you’re willing to make the trip, Mendocino is also prime whale territory! Key spots include Mendocino Headlands State Park and Point Arena Lighthouse. They also have some great whale festivals.
Whale watching south of SF
11. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz’s position just above the Monterey Bay makes it a key feeding point for migratory whales. Take a walk along West Cliff (Pleasure Point is a great spot) and you can watch the surfers while you’re at it. Check out Santa Cruz Whale Watching for tours.
12. Monterey Bay
Monterey Bay is one of the most dynamic spots for wildlife viewing in the world, where visitors can spot all kinds of whales, sea otters, seals, jellies, and more among the famous kelp forests. Don’t miss Whalefest at Moss Landing! Some good whale watching spots from land include Point Lobos and Garrapata State Park.