Whale Watching in Northern California: A Guide

Over the last couple of weeks, we have written about whale watching cruises in various cities in California. Most of these cities have been in the southern part of the state, which is the heart of the California whale watching industry, but there are still some whale watching cruises in Northern California. Because they aren’t as abundant as their Southern California counterpart, we have created the following guide to whale watching in Northern California to help you find the right cruise.

We should begin by pointing out that it makes sense that whale watching opportunities are more readily available in Southern California. This part of the state, which is composed of only 10 of California’s 58 counties, is far more densely populated than the northern half of the state, and there are also higher levels of tourism in this area. On a related note, there are also more coastal cities in Southern California, and thus more cities in which whale watching cruise outfits can be based. There are cruises in Los Angeles and San Diego and everywhere in between. We mention this somewhat common knowledge only because we don’t want to imply that there is any sort of shortage of whale watching cruises in Northern California. Of course there are less whale watching cruises in the upper half of the state: not as many people are around to take cruises. Indeed, in terms of whale watching cruises per capita, it could be the case that Northern California has as many whale watching cruises as Southern California.

The precise number of whale watching companies in Northern California depends on how you delineate this part of the state. Defined in a casual, everyday sort of way, Northern California is basically every part of California from San Francisco up. If this if one’s conception of Northern California, then the only whale watching cruises are in San Francisco. The cruises that depart from the city tend to last almost a full day, which is long for a whale watching cruise, because the ships sail to the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a habitat with whales, dolphins, and various other forms of marine life about 30 miles off the coast.

However, thinking of Northern California as San Francisco and above cuts out many of the whale watching opportunities that are technically in this region of the state, which is formally defined as the northernmost 48 counties of California. This means that whale watching cruises in Santa Cruz are part of the Northern California industry. Santa Cruz, after all, is only about an 80 minute drive south from San Francisco. However, you can go further south and still be in Northern California, and in fact Monterey Bay and its many whale watching cruises are based in the upper half of the state. Monterey Bay is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world and is therefore ideal for whale watching cruises. Cruises that depart from Santa Cruz, Moss Landing, and Monterey (the city) all explore the sanctuary.

As you can see, there are plenty of whale watching cruises in Northern California, at least if you define Northern California the way that it is technically defined. You can explore the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary if you leave from San Francisco, or you can sail through the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary if you depart from the cities/towns that line Monterey Bay. These are both superb places to see whales and other marine life, so the whale watching opportunities in Northern California are every bit as good as those in Southern California.

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