Note: Some tour operators 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 for availability before booking.
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. Although you can spot dolphins from shore, the best way to see whales is on an organized boat tour. These tours, led by experienced guides, are top-rated among travelers and experts alike.
While whale watching off the coast of Southern California is a year-round activity, observable species vary by season. Pacific gray whales can be spotted in winter and spring; From around early January to mid-February, the whales migrate south before heading north during the second half of February through May. From early May through September, blue whales, fin whales, humpback and minke whales, as well as killer whales (aka killer whales), are attracted 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 can be seen 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 this time of year, so keep that in mind when planning your Santa Barbara vacation. (No matter when you visit, remember that you are trying to spot wildlife and sightings are not guaranteed.)
While the weather in Santa Barbara typically ranges from the mid-60s to mid-70s year-round, it can feel considerably cooler on the water, especially from December through March when temperatures typically swing between years. 40s and 60s. Bringing a warm coat and blanket on board will help combat the cold ocean breeze. Applying sunscreen – whatever the time of year – is never a bad idea. Note: Children under the age of 5 are not permitted on these tours.
See 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. Visitors describe the guides as very informative and report seeing a wide variety of marine animals. For most of the year, 4.5-hour tours are offered once a day, starting at 10 a.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m. Trips cost around $110 for adults and $65 for children. children from 5 to 12 years old. However, in the spring (mid-February to early May), cruises are shortened to 2.5 hours and depart at 9 am, noon and 3 pm. Shorter spring tours cost around $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 to spot animals during 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 migrating north to Alaska on this seasonal tour. Humpback whales, dolphins and more marine life are also commonly spotted. Reviewers regularly describe the friendly crew members’ commentary as entertaining and educational. Travelers also report numerous sightings of whales and dolphins. Two-hour cruises are offered daily from mid-February to mid-May and depart at 1:30 p.m. or 2 p.m., depending on the time of year. Prices start at $50 for passengers 13 or older and $45 for children 5-12. For an additional $10, cruise passengers can upgrade to first class to enjoy access to the ship’s rooftop deck, priority boarding and drink service. Note that only passengers 12 years and older can upgrade to first class.