Southern California's Marine Mammal Hot Spots

Spy whales, dolphins, seals, and even otters along the coast, and enjoy exciting aquariums on a multiday trip from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Length: 3 days

Day 1: Santa Barbara to Long Beach
Directions: From Santa Barbara, take U.S. 101 (El Camino Real) to I-405 (San Diego Freeway), then head south on I-710 to Long Beach

Santa Barbara. Keep your eyes peeled for California sea otters offshore west of UC Santa Barbara ; the state’s smallest marine mammals are re-establishing a population at UCSB’s Coal Oil Point Reserve .

Channel Islands. Up to 30 types of whales and dolphins ply these nutrient-rich waters throughout the year. Join whale-watching day trips out of Santa Barbara in search of blue and gray whales, humpbacks, and orcas.

Long Beach. After checking out the fun Aquarium of the Pacific , climb aboard a guided harbor cruise to spot sea lions and dolphins. Then check out the ultimate cruise ship, the Queen Mary , permanently docked here and outfitted with a host of restaurants (don’t miss the lavish Sunday brunch ).

Spend the night in Long Beach.

Day 2: Long Beach to Dana Point
Directions: From Long Beach, head north on I-710, then go south on I-405 (San Diego Freeway). Take State 73 south, then catch State 55 and head southwest to Newport Beach. Continue south on State 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) to Crystal Cove State Beach, Laguna Beach, and Dana Point.

Newport Beach. Take to the water on your own in a Duffy electric boat, and cruise over to Balboa Island for lunch and a classic Balboa Bar ice cream treat.

Crystal Cove State Beach. Check out this beautiful preserve; California sea lions like to catch some rays here as much as people do. Grab a bite at the charming Beachcomber Cafe , a restored cottage serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Laguna Beach. See who’s in rehab at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center , which cares for injured sea lions and elephant, harbor, and northern fur seals, then releases them into the wild.

Dana Point. Catch a whale-watching trip year-round then catch a wave (or at least try to) at beginner surfing lessons offered in the area.

Spend the night in Dana Point.

Day 3: Dana Point to San Diego
Directions: Take State 1 south to I-5 and continue south to Carlsbad, Mission Bay, and San Diego.

Carlsbad. Add to your understanding of the delicate balance of all marine life at Sea Life Aquarium , with interactive exhibits and chances to get up close (but not too close) with sharks, rays, and other animals. The aquarium’s Ocean Journey Cafe specializes in locally grown and raised foods.

Mission Bay. With its strong emphasis on education, SeaWorld San Diego makes a terrific stop on any coastal tour. Make a splash with the family and enjoy a special breakfast or dinner with the park’s resident orca, Shamu.

San Diego. Hop onto a day cruise of the harbor and beyond to look for seals, dolphins, and whales; or join a multiday trip (usually Dec–Mar) heading south to Baja to visit lagoons where gray whales breed and have their young.