Southern California Whale Watching Tips

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Whale watching season is upon us! November through April, Gray Whales pass along the California coast, and there’s no better place to watch them than in Southern California’s beach cities of Dana Point, Long Beach, and Newport Beach. If you’re visiting Los Angeles or Orange County, California in the winter, we think making the trek to the ports from which whale watching expeditions depart is a must-do.

In this post, we offer some tips to make the most of the experience, along with our experiences whale watching. Especially from late December to late March, whale watching is pretty much a sure thing in Southern California. The Gray Whales migrate an upwards of 6,000 miles south from their feeding grounds in the Bering Strait to mate in the warm waters of Baja, Mexico and there are tons of whales in the water off the Southern California coast during these months as a result.

In fact, most whale watching tours guarantee that you’ll spot a whale, and offer your money back if you don’t. The very existence of this guarantee should be telling–they wouldn’t be making such a promise if whales weren’t plentiful. We’ve done two whale watching tours in Dana Point: Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari and Dana Wharf Whale Watching & Sportfishing. However, pretty much every outfit in Long Beach, Newport Beach, and Dana Point has excellent reviews. Here’s what we’ve experienced…

You’re seeing the same whales regardless, and they are the stars of the show, so unless money is no concern, I’d recommend going with whichever whale-watching provider is the cheapest option and most convenient to you.

When we’ve gone, we have been able to purchase our tickets through Groupon; a day during Christmas and New Year’s ended up being only ~$15 per person despite the harbor being pretty busy. Discount tickets are plentiful, so don’t pay full price.

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The reason I recommend whale watching in Dana Point versus one of the other beaches (Newport Beach, Long Beach, Los Angeles, etc.) is convenience. The Dana Point Harbor has a massive parking area that is steps from the whale watching outfit. It’s much more of a hassle parking elsewhere unless you’re doing an early morning cruise. If you’re doing Southern California right, you’ll be near Dana Point when you visit California’s best beaches in Laguna Beach, anyway. 🙂 Dana Point is the next city south of Laguna on the PCH, so it’s not like you’re going out of your way.

I’m no expert on Grey Whales, but I assume your likelihood of seeing whales in any of the beach cities is about the same. It’s the same coast, and it’s not like Dana Point city officials are planting delicious crab larvae in their water to attract more whales. With that said, everyone in Dana Point is all hyped on whales, so why not embrace the hype by whale watching there? This is especially true if you visit during their annual Festival of the Whales (don’t miss the whale parade).

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Despite (or maybe because of?) the steep discount for our dates and it being the holiday season, or boat was not overly crowded, and it was easy to get a view of the whales. There was also plenty of seating so you could simply relax and enjoy the experience as a leisurely cruise, if you so desired.

Beyond this, my biggest tip is to adjust your expectations. Whale watching most likely is not going to yield any gorgeous photos. Unless you are extremely lucky, you’re not going to capture a breathtaking photo of a whale tail at sunset with glowing water droplets cascading off of it. Honestly, this type of epic photo is what motivated me to go in the first place (despite going in the morning…so such a sunset photo wouldn’t have been possible regardless; not really sure what I was thinking).

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Instead, you’ll get photos of what look like rusty pieces of metal floating in the water with some barnacles attached. So, unless floating rusty metal photography is your niche, this isn’t something you do for the photos. It’s all about the experience, and is most definitely an experience that’s worth the money.

That’s something you absolutely cannot glean from my photos. (Are they whales or are they rusty pieces of metal? You decide.) However, it’s something you’ll understand the first time a mother and her calf appear in view, and take your breath away with their size and grandeur.

Truth be told, this wasn’t something I was expecting. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful animals in the wild, and I didn’t expect a small glimpse of a whale to leave me awestruck. While you do typically only see a portion of the whale out of the water (these guys aren’t leaping out, Free Willy style) it’s pretty easy to ascertain their size from above the surface, and that is really a sight to behold. Think about it: these mammoth creatures are traveling 6,000 miles (the distance from Los Angeles to New York and back) to mate and you are watching them on that incredible journey. That’s crazy.

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Chances are, you will see multiple whales during your cruise, especially if you visit during prime months. In addition to whales, you’ll probably catch a glimpse of dolphins, sea lions, and a common breed of homo sapiens, native to California, known as “paddle boarders.”

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A lot of people like sea lions, but I am not one of those people.

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Seeing them strewn lifelessly across rocks looks like the aftermath on an aquatic mammal battlefield, and the fact that these guys smell like death doesn’t help that vivid image.

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You will also see dolphins, and like any reasonable person, I love dolphins.

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These fellas like to “play” with the whale watching boats, and frequently swim alongside them, jumping out of the water along the way.

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Overall, if you’re visiting Southern California during the winter or early spring, whale watching should be on your shortlist of potential things to do. I know the photos here don’t exactly make a compelling argument, but hopefully the words do. (My recommendation despite the photogenic-ness of the experience hopefully is especially compelling, since I’m a photographer who is normally swayed photogenic-ness.) If you’re able to score one of the discounted tickets, you’re looking at a couple of hours of entertainment for around $10/hour, which is incredibly cheap by California standards. Heck, you could take the marine life out of the equation entirely, and you get a nice boat ride on the ocean for a relatively low price!

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.

Your Thoughts…

Have you been whale watching? Did you do it in California, or elsewhere? What did you think of the experience? Any other tips to add? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!

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2 replies
  1. Ck
    Ck says:

    Gray whales are typically less demonstrative. I went today, saw lots of breaches and fluking (tails lifted out of the water). It was amazing! It really depends on the species. And obviously, the experience will vary even within a species.

    Definitely agree on that just a glimpse of a whale’s tail is breathtaking! Today was my first time seeing whales and it was absolutely incredible, even just watching them come to take a breath.

    P.S. I’m jealous, it looks like you saw Pacific white sided dolphins. They’re rarer and one of my favorite species!

    Reply

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