California is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. Each year, about 20,000 gray whales make an epic 6,000-mile journey between Alaska and Mexico—and then back again. These massive, itinerant mammals travel from feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to mating and breeding lagoons along Baja California in Mexico. It’s one of the most amazing wildlife migrations on the planet, and also relatively easy for humans to witness, especially if you join a guided whale-watching cruise with knowledgeable crew on board. (In some locations, you can see whales spouting, breaching, and fluking from ocean bluffs, especially if you have binoculars.) While gray whales get the spotlight along the California coast, other cetaceans—including orcas, humpbacks, porpoises, dolphins, and gigantic blue whales—ply the waters at different times of year, bumping up your chances of seeing something amazing out there in the sea.
California has multiple destinations that are ideal for spotting whales along the coast. The northernmost of them is Mendocino, where there are several high vantage points that make watching from land a solid option. Then, about three hours south (by car), you’ll find a cluster of five more whale-watching spots in quick succession: the San Francisco Bay Area, where whale experts say 94 percent of migrating gray whales pass by, Santa Cruz, Moss Landing, and Monterey. Each has their advantages and charms—it’s hard to beat the convenience of being able to spot whales from the midst of a major city like San Francisco, and Santa Cruz also has year-round dolphins, sea otters, and seals to check out if the whales are out of season or being shy.
From Monterey, things pick up again in Los Angeles, and there are also great spots and tours offered in Orange County, the Channel Islands, and San Diego County. Read on to learn more about what they all have to offer.