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The Best Whale Watching in Santa Barbara

The Best Whale Watching in Santa Barbara


Note: Some tour providers on this list may be running more limited operations due to COVID-19 or may impose testing or vaccine requirements. Check with your tour operator about availability before you book.

Thanks to its nutrient-rich waters, Santa Barbara, California, is considered one of the best places on the West Coast for whale watching. In fact, more than 30 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions inhabit the waters around Santa Barbara. Though you may be able to spot dolphins from the shore, the best way to see whales is on an organized boat tour. These tours, helmed by knowledgeable guides, are the top rated among travelers and experts alike.

While whale watching off the coast of Southern California is a year-round activity, the observable species vary by season. Pacific gray whales can be spotted in winter and spring; from roughly early January to mid-February, the whales migrate south before heading north during the latter half of February into May. From early May through September, blue, finback, humpback and minke whales, along with orcas (aka killer whales), are drawn to the warm ocean temperatures around Santa Barbara. Fall welcomes a mix of humpback, blue, orca, minke and sperm whales. Meanwhile, dolphins, sea lions and harbor seals are observable year-round. Winter and spring are generally considered the best seasons for whale watching in Santa Barbara. In fact, some tour operators only offer cruises during this time of year, so keep that in mind when planning your Santa Barbara vacation. (No matter when you visit, remember that you’re trying to spot wild animals and sightings are not guaranteed.)

While the weather in Santa Barbara generally ranges from the mid-60s to the mid-70s year-round, it can feel considerably cooler on the water, especially from December through March, when temperatures generally swing from the 40s to the 60s. Bringing a warm coat and a blanket on board will help combat the chilly ocean breeze. Applying sunscreen – regardless of the time of year – is also never a bad idea. Note: Children younger than 5 years old are not permitted on these tours.

Witness a wide array of whales, birds and other wildlife in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the Santa Barbara Channel on a Condor Express cruise. Tourgoers describe the guides as highly informative and report seeing a wide variety of marine animals. During most of the year, 4 ½-hour tours are offered once a day, starting at 10 a.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m. Trips cost approximately $110 for adults and $65 for children ages 5 to 12. However, in spring (mid-February to early May), cruises are shortened to 2 ½ hours and depart at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. The shorter spring tours run about $65 for adults and $45 for children. Cruises are generally available daily, except from October to mid-February, when there are no tours on Mondays or Tuesdays. Condor Express guarantees you’ll spot animals on your trip; if you don’t, you can take another cruise for free. Food and beverages are available on board the boat, which can carry up to 127 passengers.

Celebration Cruises – Seasonal Whale Watching Cruise

Observe gray whales making their northbound migration toward Alaska during this seasonal excursion. Humpback whales, dolphins and more marine life are also typically spotted. Reviewers regularly describe the friendly crew members’ commentary as entertaining and educational. Travelers also report numerous whale and dolphin sightings. Two-hour cruises are offered daily from mid-February to mid-May and depart at 1:30 or 2 p.m., depending on the time of year. Prices start at $50 for passengers 13 or older and $45 for children ages 5 to 12. For an additional $10 fee, cruisers can upgrade to first class to enjoy access to the boat’s roof deck, priority boarding and drink service. Note that only passengers 12 and older can upgrade to first class.

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