Whale Watching Off the Coast of Southern California


Whenever I’ve gone whale-watching, I’ve always gotten lucky, and these two cruises off the Southern California coast were no exception.

Channel Islands

Of the world’s 89 species of cetaceans, 29 have been spotted in waters around the Channel Islands. Based on recommendations from friends, we chose Condor Express in Santa Barbara, a company that has been leading whale-watching tours since 1973. As we bought our tickets, the staff member told us that it is one of the few firms in the area to offer a “whale-watching guarantee”: If whales are not seen, passengers are issued “whale checks,” which are good for a free trip on another tour.

The Condor Express whale-watching tour
The Condor Express whale-watching tour - Photo by David Collier, Courtesy of Visit California/Visit Santa Barbara

We boarded a quad-jet-powered catamaran and headed inside to the teak cabin. This houses a snack bar that serves hot and cold food and offers a surprisingly large drinks menu. The captain then led us upstairs to the spacious observation deck where he introduced us to our guide. A 10-minute presentation highlighted the different kinds of whales, dolphins, porpoises and birds that we would most likely see that day.

Whales can be spotted year-round in the Channel Islands. The best period to see gray whales is from December to April, as the creatures leave the Bering Sea and head through the Santa Barbara Channel to the warm waters of Mexico. (February to April is my favorite time of year because the mothers can be seen swimming with their newborn calves.) Humpbacks are best spotted during April and May, giant blue whales and fin whales in the summer from June to September, and orcas at any season.

A breaching whale seen near Santa Barbara
A breaching whale seen near Santa Barbara - rmchb/ Getty Images/iStock photo

Our captain seemed to have a sixth sense for finding wildlife — no doubt technology also played a part — and within 30 minutes, we were watching two huge humpbacks, one showing off his tail as he made a series of shallow dives and another playing with kelp nearby. The captain positioned us perfectly and then stopped the boat for photography.

Eventually, reluctantly, we left the humpbacks and jetted off to renew our search. As the boat picked up speed, hundreds of torpedo-shaped common dolphins rode our bow wave. Surging in and out of the water at high speed, dolphins emanate a contagious sense of energy and joy.

By the time we returned to port, we had been lucky enough to see five blue whales, eight humpbacks, maybe 200 common dolphins and a large pod of bottlenose dolphins, plus an array of birdlife, including arctic tern, marbled godwit and surf scoter. Our final sighting was a raft of sea lions lying on a buoy near the harbor entrance. Our knowledgeable guide had provided a running commentary throughout the trip, and his good humor, wit and passion had made our excursion even more enjoyable. The caliber of the service and joviality of the entire Condor Express staff heightened a superlative wildlife experience. We disembarked in a state of euphoria and vowed to repeat the experience as soon as possible.

Condor Express
Tel. (805) 882-0088

Newport Beach

A grey whale tail seen on the Newport Landing Ultimate Whale Watching Adventure in Newport Beach
A grey whale tail seen on the Newport Landing Ultimate Whale Watching Adventure in Newport Beach - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

In Newport Beach we chose to go with Newport Landing for our cruise. We purchased the most expensive option, the two-hour “Ultimate Whale Watching Adventure,” which made use of a 15-person Zodiac-like boat, rather than a larger ship, which could have had upward of 70 or 80 people on board. The additional $30 per person bought us guaranteed seats as well as a much more intimate experience.

I doubted the wisdom of my decision when I first saw the boat, because the seats resembled saddles with backs. They looked quite uncomfortable. But the design proved both comfortable and sensible; it allowed us to stand up to take a photo while maintaining a grip on the seat with our legs, keeping us stable. The seas were rather high, and when we motored up and down the waves, it sometimes felt like a rollercoaster. Those prone to seasickness should take precautions or avoid this excursion altogether.

Fortunately, everyone on board had a sturdy stomach, and I enjoyed the cruise immensely. Once we exited the placid harbor, lined with yachts and expensive homes, we went in search of gray whales. We spotted a pair within minutes, but they surfaced only occasionally. After trailing them for a while, we turned toward a pod of four gray whales another ship had sighted. These whales were quite showy, delighting our group by puffing water out of their blowholes and lifting their immense flukes (tails) in the air as they dove down.

A sailboat seen on the Newport Landing Ultimate Whale Watching Adventure
A sailboat seen on the Newport Landing Ultimate Whale Watching Adventure - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

One little girl at the front mentioned more than once that she hoped to see dolphins, and as time grew short, I worried she might be disappointed. Fortunately, our captain heard word on his radio of a sighting at the last minute, and he made a sharp left turn toward them. Several playful and curious common dolphins approached our boat and swam alongside it. I loved watching them, but even more charming was the girl, who rushed to the bow and shouted with wondrous joy, “Oh … my … God! They are so cute!” Such was the depth of her emotion at seeing the animals, I feared that she might actually jump in with them.

Sea lions seen on the Newport Landing Ultimate Whale Watching Adventure
Sea lions seen on the Newport Landing Ultimate Whale Watching Adventure - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

En route back to the dock, we passed a large buoy where about two dozen sea lions cuddled up, in order to dry out in the warm sun. We had also dried out by this point — as we sped across some especially large waves earlier in the cruise, the spray had dampened us — and I felt as content as those sunning sea lions appeared to be.

Newport Landing
Tel. (949) 675-0551

By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.