Whale watching in the San Francisco Bay Area is a nearly year-round phenomenon thanks to staggered migration seasons, and gray whale migration is about to take off. Even from land, you’re likely to see them spouting, slapping their tails (known as “lobtailing”) or even breaching. We’ve put together a guide to Bay Area whale watching boat tours and promising viewing spots. Read on for everything you need to know.
When can you see whales in the Bay Area?
“Whale season” is almost year-round on the California coast. We see a series of whale migrations every year, which, according to the NPS, generally goes as follows:
- Summer or fall: Humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales
- Winter/spring: Gray whales
- Year-round: Minke whales, orcas
Over 15,000 gray whales migrate along the California coast during the winter. They make one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling up to 14,000 miles round-trip from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to the warm lagoons in Mexico. Gray whales can be seen in local waters in December and January during their southern migration, and between mid-February and early May on their northern migration.
After nearly going extinct, the North Pacific gray whale population recovered significantly for a time and was considered a grand conservation success. However in 2019 gray whales began washing up on shore in startlingly high numbers, causing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare an Unusual Mortality Event which is ongoing.
Humpback whales migrate from their winter calving and mating grounds off of Mexico to their summer and fall feeding grounds off of central California. They often move around depending on the density of anchovies, sardines, and krill.
The Chronicle reported last year 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 likely won’t see our first humpback in the Bay Area until April.
Orcas, A.K.A. killer whales, do not follow such a predictable migration schedule as they tend to travel around depending on food availability. Every so often they appear in exciting numbers off the California coast, like last June near the Farallon Islands and Monterey Bay.
Where can you see whales in the Bay Area?
1. San Francisco
- SF Whale Tours: 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.
- Angel Island Ferry: The Angel Island Ferry offers a wildlife tour through the SF Bay and just outside the Golden Gate Bridge from June-October.
Especially from the Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail, which has some of the best ocean views in the Bay.
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.
Some local sportfishing companies that also offer whale-watching excursions:
South of SF on the way to Santa Cruz, this beach is also a hotspot for elephant seals year-round.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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!