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Whale Watching in San Francisco

Erin De Santiago
Gray whale
Watching gray whale blow

San Francisco Bay is one of the best places in California to go whale watching. While the types of whales you can see may vary based on the season, it is an activity that you can partake in most of the year. Take a guided boat tour or keep watch from the shore - you might spot one at any time if you're in the right spot and very lucky.

Whale Watching Boat Tours

Whale watching boat tours are quite popular, as they provide a knowledgeable guide and a great chance of seeing wildlife. Several tours leave from San Francisco and head to the Farallon Islands, which are 27 miles off the coast, via the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Recommended whale watching tours out of San Francisco Bay include:

  • Viator Travel's Whale Watching Excursions: Viator is one of the biggest online tour aggregators and offers two eco-friendly whale watching tours. The tours run year round and include views of the San Francisco skyline and Farallon Islands. They offer a 5-hour tour during weekdays and a 6-hour tour on the weekends.
  • San Francisco Coast and Tributaries Eco Tour: Departing on the first Saturday of each month, San Francisco Whale Tours operates the San Francisco Coast and Tributaries Eco Tour itinerary. You'll have an opportunity to see a variety of marine life, and this trip comes with a special guarantee. They offer a free trip in the future if you don't see a whale on your cruise! Be sure to purchase your tickets in advance, as these monthly tours often sell out in advance.
  • SF Bay Whale Watching: Departing from Pier 39, SF Bay Whale Watching offers a full-day trip to the Farallon Islands. The sanctuary is home to 26 federally-listed endangered or threatened species, including the leatherback sea turtle and marbled murrelets. Here is where you might luck out with a blue whale sighting as they regularly feed in the sanctuary. Other marine life you may encounter include northern elephant seals, California and Steller sea lions, and northern fur seals. Your tour includes a certified naturalist guide.
  • Oceanic Society Whale Watching Tour to the Farallon Islands (Seasonal): From May to November, the Oceanic Society operates whale watching tours out to the Farallon Islands. The rest of the year, they offer 3-hour gray whale migration tours out of Half Moon Bay. A wide variety of seabird species pare resent depending on the time of year (call 415-258-8220 for a recording on recent whale and marine life sightings). For those staying north of San Francisco, there is an option to depart out of Sausalito.

Check websites like Groupon for potential discounts, and/or research tours that promise a whale sighting or you get another cruise for free.

Whale Watching Seasons in San Francisco

Hump back whale breaching
Humpback whale

There are two basic whale watching seasons in San Francisco Bay. While there's definitely no guarantee you'll spot one, the chance of spotting one is definitely greater during the right time of the year.

  • According to SF Bay Wildlife, gray whale season extends from mid-December to April, when the whales are on their annual migration between their Arctic feeding grounds and their breeding grounds in Baja, California. Catch them headed south in December and January, or north in March and April - when you might even luck out by seeing a mother with her newborn calves!
  • If you're hoping to see a humpback whale, you might want to plan a trip between May and September, according to SF Bay Whale Watching Guide. In addition to humpback whales, there is also a very small chance you might see a blue whale between July and October. The blue whale population is struggling to make a return after they were nearly decimated worldwide due to hunting. The blue whale is now protected, and their numbers are slowly increasing.

Whale Watching From Shore

Point Reyes, in the northwest of the San Francisco Bay area, is generally regarded as one of the prime areas to catch migrating California Gray Whales. Because the Point Reyes peninsula juts out 10 miles into the ocean, it makes for a prime viewing spot from shore. In this area, the National Park Service recommends the areas around Chimney Rock and the Lighthouse for whale watching. During peak migration time, there will be a mandatory shuttle bus system operating to help alleviate the high volume of traffic. Call 415-464-5100 (x2, x3, x1) to check the 'Shuttles, Whales, and Elephant Seals' recording for updates.

According to Visit California, San Francisco's Pier 39, Half Moon Bay, and Santa Cruz are other areas in and around San Francisco Bay that are prime whale watching spots. You can drive along the coast and find your own spot as well -look for areas that are high up and jut out into the sea. Calmer days with fewer whitecaps will help you spot a whale's spout, so look carefully if you're going on your own.

Mendocino Whale Festival

If you're planning a trip around March, look into the Mendocino Coast Whale Festival. North of San Francisco Bay, Mendocino is a very popular spot to see migrating whales right from town. The annual festival includes local seafood, wine and beer tasting, docent-led whale walks, art exhibits, and a 'Whale Tales' exhibit at the Ford House Visitor's Center. It's a great festival if you're itinerary allows.

Plan for Unpredictable San Francisco Weather

The weather can sometimes be unpredictable in San Francisco, so be sure to pack properly. Point Reyes is considered the windiest place on the Pacific Coast, and the second foggiest place in North America. The marine layer, or fog rolling in, can make even the summer months take on a chill. Bring a lightweight jacket, and if you're visiting during the rainy months like February or March, pack your rain gear.

Because of the high winds that whip the coastline, you should definitely pack seasickness medication if you are prone to motion sickness at all and plan to venture off dry land. Also, on days with very heavy winds, the choppy seas could cause some companies to cancel their boat tours for the safety of all guests.

Whale Watching in San Francisco