Ultimate Guide to Whale Watching in San Francisco

whale watching in san francisco

1. Introduction 

People come to San Francisco for many different reasons.

Some come for the culture, history and art.

Others come for the nightlife, the music, the vibe of the city. But one thing that often gets overlooked is the chance to explore nature using the city as your base. San Francisco sits on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean.

And the California coast is the perfect place to encounter whales.


2. Preparation for whale watching

There are a few preparations to bear in mind before heading out onto the ocean.

The first is to book with a reputable company and arrive in good time.

There is no point starting your day rushing around. That just takes the fun out of the trip. 

Check the weather forecast. Operators will not sail in rough seas. But if you are susceptible to motion sickness, you might want to wait for a calm day rather than risk getting seasick. 

Check the sightings. Although some companies guarantee that you will see whales, there is no way of knowing for sure. Tour operators and environmental websites will be able to offer recent sighting information.

If there have been lots of recent sightings, then your chances of seeing a whale are increased. 

It is good to take the trip with an open mind. Don't be too upset of you don't see a whale. Remember to enjoy the whole experience anyway. Enjoy the views. Take in the sea air. Marvel at the sea birds and other sea creatures you encounter.

Pack appropriately. The ocean can be 10 -15 degrees cooler than the land, so dress accordingly. A sunny day in the city does not mean that it will stay warm once you leave land. Rain showers and cold fog are also a possibility. Dress in layers so that you can control your body temperature and remain comfortable. Wear rubber-soled shoes, the decks get wet and you don't want to slip. Pack a light rain jacket just in case.


Conversely, on hot days you have little protection from the sun. Wear sunscreen. Wear a hat. Wear sunglasses. It is also a good idea to wear your glasses on a lanyard to stop them accidentally slipping off your nose and into the ocean.


If you have had problems with motion sickness in the past, consider taking some pills an hour before heading off. Remember that whale watching trips can last several hours, so plan ahead. Also, ensure that the medication is the non-drowsy type. No point sleeping through the whole adventure!


Take a camera! Bear in mind that whale watching is done from a distance, so a zoom lens is a must.



 3. The best time for whale watching


Whale watching tours run for most of the year. But different whales will be encountered at different times of the year due to their migration patterns. If you are specifically interested in one particular species, bear the following in mind.


Humpback whales migrate through the area between May and November. Gray and Killer Whales will be found in the area from December until May. Blue Whales pass by between July and October.



4. Best free whale watching locations


If you are on a budget or don't want to spend all day on the water, there are still some options for the potential whale watcher. A number of locations in and around San Francisco make good spots to seek these majestic creatures from. 


North over the Golden Gate bridge will get you to Rodeo Beach and Point Reyes National Seashore. Both are ideal places to watch for whales on land. South of the city and Point Montara Lighthouse and Pigeon Point Lighthouse are also favorite whales watching spots. You will also find a few right spots to stop and look for whales along Highway 1 near Pescadero.



5. Best whale watching Tours


But if you feel that there really is no substitution for getting up close and personal, here are some recommended tours.


SF Bay Whale Watching


This popular company offers a range of excursions, from winter trips to see Gray Whales to more general marine wildlife trips along the coast. Their boats are Coast Guard certified and their trips include an expert naturalist to guide you. Whale sightings are never guaranteed, but the operator does seem to have an eye for where to find them.


Oceanic Society


This non-profit organization has been running whale watching trips in the Bay Area since 1972. But there is far more to their excursions than just the whales. Their trips to the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary will allow you to see dolphins, seals, sea lions and seabirds. Their onboard naturalist will help you spot whales and identify seabirds. They can also answer all your questions about all the other sea animals to be found in the region. The added bonus is that these trips help fund the organization's many conservation programs and marine research.


San Francisco Whale Tours


Taking in everything from The Golden Gate Bridge to the Farallon Islands, this is a great all-round cruise. Sightings of Blue, Gray and Humpback whales are all likely, depending on the time of year. The company also operates a number of specialty tours as well.


6. Things to do after whale watching

things to do in san francisco


And once back on dry land, there is still plenty to do to round the day off. 


Fort Mason Centre


Next to the Marina is Fort Mason Centre and a walk around here will help you reacclimatise and get your land legs back. The views of the bay, the coast and the bridge here are stunning. There are the remains of the old Fort here and depending on the time of year other attractions. Such as the famous craft fair and the wine competition.


BATS Improv


You could take the weight off of your feet and have a laugh at BATS Improv. The area's longest-running Improv group and school. It's just like watching an episode of Whose Line is it Anyway. Only way better.


Ghirardelli Square


Right around the corner from your disembarkation point, you will find Ghirardelli Square. This collection of renovated buildings is now a rich collection of shops, restaurants and galleries. Small, cool business and fun places to hang out. Have a wander about for a while and then choose somewhere to eat whilst reliving the highlights of the day.