Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Best Whale Watching in Santa Barbara


Thanks to its nutrient-rich waters, Santa Barbara, California, is considered one of the best places on the West Coast for whale watching. More than 30 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions inhabit the waters around the “American Riveria.” Due to the abundance of whale sightings in the area, the Santa Barbara Channel officially became the Santa Barbara Whale Heritage Area in 2023. Though you may be able to spot dolphins from the shore, the best way to see whales is on an organized boat tour. To help you find the best whale watching experiences in Santa Barbara, U.S. News collected both traveler sentiment and expert input to curate a list. Note: Children younger than 5 years old are not permitted on these tours.

Price: Adults from $80-$125; Kids from $60-$75
Duration: 2.5 to 4.5 hours

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, tours are offered once a day, starting at 10 a.m. and ending at 2:30 p.m. During the spring and winter months (January to early May), cruises are shortened and depart at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. 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.

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Celebration Cruises – Whale and Wildlife Cruise

Price: Adults from $55-$65; Kids from $55
Duration: 2 hours

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.

Cruises are offered daily from mid-February to mid-May. For an additional 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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Santa Barbara Sailing Center – Santa Barbara Whale Watching

Price: Adults from $65; Kids from $45
Duration: 2.5 hours

Aboard the Double Dolphin, a 50-foot catamaran, travelers can catch a glimpse of Pacific gray whales along the Santa Barbara waterways as they make their migration north. Whale watchers may also see blue whales and other sea mammals such as dolphins and sea lions. On occasion, some guests may even spot orcas, humpback, minke and pilot whales. Reviewers have said the crew is nice and very knowledgeable about the harbor and whales.

Tours are offered daily with morning and afternoon trips from mid-February through mid-May. Food and beverages are offered on the boat with a capacity of up to 49 passengers. Santa Barbara Sailing Center also offers sailing lessons, as well as sunset, coastal and specialty cruises.

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Sunset Kidd Whale Watching

Price: Adults from $60; Kids from $30
Duration: 2.5 hours

Since 1987, Sunset Kidd has provided cruises along the Santa Barbara waterways. Its whale watching tour offers travelers a unique experience with the option of helping crewmembers sail the vessel alongside the large gentle mammals. Whale watchers can also see other sea creatures such as seals, sea lions and dolphins. Travelers have said the tour company provides a relaxing experience.

Tours are offered daily from mid-February through mid-May. Sunset Kidd also offers daytime, sunset, private and specialty tours.

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Frequently Asked Questions

While whale watching off the coast of Southern California is a year-round activity, the observable species vary by season. The best time to see whales is from mid-May through mid-September.

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