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California Whale Watching & Whale Photography Tips

Dream tonight of peacock tails, Diamond fields and spouter whales. Ills are many, blessing few, But dreams tonight will shelter you.

Have you ever been whale watching in California? From San Diego to Monterrey, California is famous for whale watching opportunities. This post shares everything you need to know to head out and hopefully see, photograph and share awe inspiring whales in California. Here is the whale watching info you need including:

  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • What to pack
  • How to ensure you’ll get the best whale watching photos and video to share with friends and followers

What’s the Best Month to Go Whale Watching in California?

The answer to the common question about when to whale watch in California, is… all year round!

Certain times of the year are usually better for seeing certain species.  But California whale watching can be unpredictable.  Whales don’t stick to a human timetable. Whale watching boats are constantly surprised by unexpected sightings.  There are no guarantees and you never know exactly what kind of whales you might encounter when you head out on a whale watching trip. That said, this is what makes each trip thrilling. Anything can happen!

Whale watching is one of our favorite family activities.  We are fortunate to live in Southern California where you can go whale watching all year round.

What makes California the best place for whale watching is that there is an abundant variety of whales and other marine life to be seen, all year round.

Where to Go Whale Watching in California

There are many places to go whale watching from in California but some of the most popular places to depart on a whale watching cruise or expedition. The following cities are popular destinations for whale watching tours

  • San Diego
  • Dana Point California
  • Newport Beach California
  • Catalina Island California
  • Long Beach, Californa
  • Santa Barbara, California
  • Monterrey Bay, California

How Much is Whale Watching In California?

Prices vary for whale watching in California. It’s possible to get group rates and discounted tickets on sites like Goldstar and Groupon. Expect to spend anywhere from $25 per ticket for a shorter tour on a larger boat, to several hundred dollars for all day tours on larger boats.

Common Whale Sightings By Season for Whale Watching In California

Whale Sightings in California vary by season. It can be a bit unpredictable. There are many different kinds of whales that can and have been spotted off the So Cal coast. Some of these include:

  • Blue Whales – The largest whales, most often seen in the summer months. These whales are extra “lucky” to spy. Only 1% of the world’s population have seen these gorgeous creatures.
  • Gray Whales – Migrate thru the area in Fall/Winter and Early Spring. Often spotted with their calves.
  • Fin Whales – Might show up any time!
  • Minke Whales – Show up year round
  • Humpback Whales – One of the most social and acrobatic whales, they can show up any time.
  • Sperm Whales – Rarely seen, but they have been spotted in the area!
  • Killer Whales – Infrequently seen in the Fall/Winter
  • Risso’s Dolphins – Seen most often off the coast of Catalina Island
  • Common Dolphins – Often spotted in large pods, smaller dolphins who are very acrobatic
  • Pacific White Sided Dolphins – Athletic and playful, they love to surf in the wake of boats and often ride alongside the bow
  • Bottlenose Dolphins – Larger dolphins, often found closer to shore and near the harbor

Who Should go Whale Watching

Whale watching is a perfect activity for all ages. It’s one of the best multigenerational activities. Everyone from  toddlers to senior citizens can enjoy marine mammal expeditions. The trick is finding an outing that is most appropriate for your crew. While some outings are on larger, more comfortable boats with amenities like snack bars and bathrooms, other more adventurous outings are small boat affairs that may go farther and stay out all day. Plan accordingly!

Most of the popular trips take place on larger vessels. These are typically 2-2.5 hours in total, which is just long enough to get a good look at several types of marine animals, without getting bored or antsy.

What To Bring On The Boat When Whale Watching In California

Based on my  many successful trips here are the most important things to pack for a Whalewatching trip

  • Sunscreen
  • A hat that fits securely (like a beanie or adjustable baseball cap/visor if you want additional sun protection)
  • Sunglasses  polarized lenses will give you a slight advantage for spotting marine animals however they may get in the way if you are using binoculars and/or taking photos and using a viewfinder. Sunglasses leashes make it easier and safer to put on/take off your glasses.
  • Clothing layers that include a long sleeved tee and a windbreaker/jacket
  • Comfortable shoes that have a grip and that you can maintain your balance in
  • Snacks (see below)
  • Water bottle
  • Seasick preventatives and remedies, even if you don’t get seasick!  I always carry multiple pairs of Seabands, along with Vertigox anti nausea roller ball oil, dramamine tablets. Better safe than sorry! A hard candy, such as Jolly Ranchers,  in a semi sour flavor or mints are also useful for quelling milder nausea.
  • Binoculars ( caution – not to be used by anyone who tends to get seasick!)
  • A camera with a spare camera battery. Point and shoot cameras with zoom and sports/wildlife modes are a good choice!
  • A fully charged cell phone with a back up battery pack.

Simple salty snacks such as crackers, nuts, cheese and bland cookies are your best best for snacking on the boat. Stay away from sugary and fatty options if you tend to get queasy on boats. Eating can actually help that feeling but not if you consume a high fat or very sugary meal in motion.

Regardless of your tendencies and confidence level, always eat a light meal an hour or two before leaving. This ensures your stomach is neither empty or overly full. That way you won’t be distracted by hunger and are far less likely to feel ill.

It’s important to drink water to stay hydrated as the sun and wind can quickly dry you out.  Don’t worry about drinking too much water. There are bathrooms on most whale watching tour boats!

Other Marine Animals To Look For While Whale Watching in California

Whales and dolphins are only one type of marine animal that you will see when whale watching in Southern California.  Other marine animals routinely spotted include:

  • Sea Lions
  • Sunfish
  • Harbor Seals
  • Pelicans
  • Gulls
  • Cormorants

Sharks are also spotted on occasion. There have been several juvenile Great White Sharks in the San Diego area of late.

How To Get Instagram Worthy Photos of Whales When Whale Watching

Taking photos of whales and dolphins is a lot of fun but tricky! Especially if you are not a pro photographer.  Whales and dolphins appear and disappear FAST. There’s no surefire way to predict when and where they will appear and reappear except to say, it won’t be where you saw them last!

Pro photographers often shoot in manual mode or aperature priority modes. The most important considerations are to use a fast exposure 1/1000 of a second if you are able. While long range telephoto lenses are fun on land, they can be tricky to use on water. Most require stabilization with a tripod or monopod (difficult on a rocking boat). It’s also less likely to capture a well focussed shot when you are zoomed in on a small area of water.  The “magic” number used by many whale photographers hovers around 200-300mm.

So how do you get amazing whale photos if you are not a pro, and don’t have fancy gear or don’t know exactly how to use all the settings on your camera?

You can set yourself up for success by placing your point and shoot camera in a sports, or freeze motion mode. Definitely get this set up before you go. Try taking some practice shots of pets, active children or wildlife on land.

At the very least, before you board or shortly thereafter, set your camera up to shoot in burst mode. This allows you to shoot multiple images at once, increasing the chance that you will “get the shot.”

If you are able to use a filter on your camera, look for a polarizing filter. This can help you remove glare and improve the color and contrast of your photos take on the water.

Try out these ideas before your trip so that you are confident when the opportunity to take photos happens.

Note: If you are shooting images with your cell phone you can also shoot in burst mode. Another technique is to shoot video, and then pull photos from the frames in the video. Try filming dolphins in slow motion. This is often the best way to capture their jumps and interactions.

Livestreaming While Whale Watching in Southern California

Most of the time you are on larger tourist boats, and with most tour companies you won’t be much farther than a mile from shore. Many migratory whales hug the coastline. This means you will have plenty of cell service to make phone calls and even live stream your experience on social media so that your friends and family can see what they are missing.

Post to social media, facetime your dad! Share the excitement.  This is another reason why I always carry a backup phone charger.

You won’t be able to post live from smaller all day expeditions. These types of trips are limited to fewer participants on smaller boats in more remote areas. These specialized whale watching outings are popular with photographers and naturalists. They offer more opportunities to gather stunning up close photos of whales and marine mammals. But they are not suited for livestreaming activities.

How to Avoid Sea Sickness While Whale Watching

Sometimes sea sickness happens, even to the best of us. You can be ready for it and prevent it in most cases. Some of the best ways to prevent sea sickness include:

  • Plan your trip when seas are calmer. First thing in the morning and later afternoon are generally calmer than midday. Check local conditions. The Pacific ocean often lives up to it’s name – with calm and glass-like days. Other days can be quite choppy.
  • Eat a light meal a couple of hours before your trip.
  • Wear Seabands or other acupressure based anti-nausea wearables.
  • Carry/use essential oils that help with motion sickness such as Vertigox or peppermint oil
  • Carry/take remedies such as Dramamine or Bonine
  • Suck on a lollipop or hard candy
  • Avoid the use of binoculars and camera viewfinders if you are not feeling well or are prone to seasickness. Keep your eye on land or the horizon if land is not in sight.
  • Stay towards the rear, main level of the boat and sit outside if possible (away from any fumes) to get fresh air and a wide view. The front of the boat tends to have the most motion if you are wave jumping, and this is magnified on upper decks.

Whale Watching Hashtags for Instagram and Tiktok Posts

One great way to learn more about whale watching is to explore hashtags about the subject. Not only will you learn a lot, you can also discover when different species are likely to be seen in your part of California. For example, when gray and humpback whales are being seen a lot in a particular area, you will see local whale watching companies and tour participants posting about it. That’s your cue to book a trip! There’s never any guarantees but you are more likely to see whales when others in the area have already recently seen them.















Whale Watching Instagram Accounts

Pacific Offshore

Whales Nation


Newport Coastal Adventure

Harbor Breeze Cruises

Newport Whales

Dana Wharf Whalewatching

Gone Whale Watching

Planet Whale

SoCal Whale Watching

Captain Dave’s Whale Watching

Whale Watching Tiktok Accounts

Newport Whales

Dana Wharf

Chris’ Whale Watching


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