California's Best Whale Watching

When it comes to whale watching in California, Monterey Bay is where it’s at.

Within the waters of the bay is a submarine canyon comparable in size and shape to the Grand Canyon. This deep canyon is perfect for kickstarting the ocean food chain, attracting a variety of wildlife.

Monterey is one of the few places in the world that offers year-round whale watching thanks to a mix of migratory and resident marine mammals. Humpback, fin and minke whales as well as Risso’s, common and pacific white sided dolphin and the occasional killer whale can be sighted throughout the year. In the spring (April & May) is when killer whale or orca “season” peaks. Most of the orca that frequent the bay are transient (mammal eating) and in the spring months they prey on gray whale calves that migrate up the coast with their mothers. A gray whale predation event is a highly sought after sighting among many whale watchers!

The spring is my personal favorite time to visit. I have been lucky enough to spend the better part of the day with a pod of killer whales this past April. These orca are studied and identified, many of them have names or ID’s (such as CA51 or CA163)... I could go on and on about those guys, I love them so much! But that will be saved for another blog post.

For now here is a photo from that encounter- featuring CA163 Liner, CA140 Emma and one of her calves. :)

Spring and into summer, huge congregations of humpback whales gather to feed in the bay. It’s not uncommon to see several whale lunge feeding. Even a seasoned whale watcher like myself cannot contain the excitement of witnessing 4 or 5 whales burst out of the water with an explosion of sardines or anchovies! 

Blue and fin whales are also sighted in these months. There have also been sightings of extremely rare species such as beaked whales and sperm whales.

Other wildlife that can be sighted in Monterey Bay include the leatherback turtle, Dall’s porpoises, harbor porpoises, northern right whale dolphin (yes, a dolphin despite the confusing name), sea lions, elephant seals, sea jellies, ocean sunfish (Mola Mola), great white sharks and of course the iconic sea otters!

Top Picks for tour companies in the bay are the following:

Monterey Bay Whale Watch - Offers all-day trips in addition to 4 and 3 hour trips on a variety of vessels. All trips are narrated by naturalists and marine biologists!

Discovery Whale Watch - One of the newer companies in the bay, brought together by a very talented, experienced and educated crew from all over the west coast.

Blue Ocean Whale Watch - Located in the smaller town of Moss Landing located in the middle of the bay’s coastline and led by Captain Kate Cummings the “ultimate whale geek” (who’s been a whale watch naturalist since 2008!).

Fast Raft is also a great, high speed/small group choice. I am yet to go out with them myself but have heard nothing but amazing things.

If there is a particular species you are hoping to see, such as orca, blue whales or fin whales, I would recommend getting on the water as much as you can. Getting on several trips over the span of different days can increase your chances of seeing different species. All day trips also allow a larger range to be explored and longer time to stay with the animals.

The swells and conditions in the bay can get wild. If you are prone to motion sickness, take dramamine the night before, load up on ginger chews and ginger ale or wear pressure point wristbands. It is so worth it to get out there!

Hope these recommendations help plan your trip up to Monterey Bay. Happy whale watching!

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