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5 Places to Enjoy Winter Whale Watching on the West Coast

From Washington to Hawai‘i, you can observe the majestic mammals from land or water

spinner image a humpback whale in Lahaina, Hawaii
Humpback whales migrate to Hawai‘i for the winter; peak viewing season is in February.
Getty Images

Every winter, thousands of gray and humpback whales migrate south, like so many aquatic snowbirds, on a 5,000-mile journey from Alaskan waters to Mexico and Hawai‘i for feeding and breeding. The procession of Baja-bound whales passes along the entire U.S. West Coast, with others headed to the Hawaiian islands, providing great opportunities to see these giants of the sea that are making a comeback from critically endangered status.

Both from land and by sea, viewers can spot these massive mammals weighing upward of 40 tons and measuring about 50 feet in length emerging from the water. The whales spout misty exhales of air in “thar she blows!” moments, poking their heads from the sea, slapping their tails, and even fully jumping from the water in spectacular breaching displays.

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The gray whale southern migration starts in Alaska in the fall, reaching its peak in late December to January in Oregon, and January to February in California. The bulk of humpback whales commute down to Hawai‘i for the winter, with peak viewing season in February.

Don’t worry if you miss the southern journey. The whales turn around and head back north from their winter grounds in Baja, California, beginning in mid-February, affording another viewing opportunity along the U.S. western states from February through May.

Whale watching can be done from land, at elevated viewing points near the shoreline with the naked eye or with the aid of binoculars, often at designated nature centers. Whale-watching boat tours give visitors the chance for more reliable and dramatic close-up viewing opportunities. But be sure to sail only with accredited tour operators who follow safety guidelines for both you and the majestic animals. Also, because winter waters can sometimes be choppy and the weather unsettled, don’t forget to bring your seasickness medication — or just hold out for nice weather if you have the time. Choosing a larger boat and sitting in the middle of the lower deck can also help to reduce seasickness on whale-watching (or any seaborne) excursions.

Below are some tips for where, when and how to go whale watching along the U.S. West Coast and Hawai‘i. 

spinner image An orca at San Juan Islands, Washington
Orcas, or “killer whales,” make the San Juan Islands in Washington their home year-round.
Jeff Foott / Getty Images

Washington

Migratory whales pass through Washington’s coastal waters at the beginning of their southern journey in fall, and later in spring for the whales’ northern return trip. The Whale Trail, a Seattle-based whale-focused organization, highlights 20 spots along Washington’s Olympic Peninsula that are great for land-based observation during the migratory seasons. The Whale Trail has interpretive signs and markers posted at key viewpoints along the route. In addition, Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island is a notable spot in the inner Salish Sea for whale watching, with whale talks held twice a week at the lighthouse in summer.

Not all giant cetaceans migrate, which adds to options for winter whale watching. Washington is one of the world’s prime spots for orca-viewing opportunities, particularly around the San Juan Islands, easily accessible via car and ferry from Seattle. Many pods of orcas (also known as “killer whales”) make the islands their home year-round. The San Juans have many highlighted spots along its segment of the Whale Trail, and is home to many whale-watching boat tour operators, running day trips from San Juan Island and the aptly named Orcas Island.

spinner image an aerial view of Arch Rock, Oregon
The Whale Trail organization lists 22 shore-viewing locations along the Oregon coast. Here, a view of the coast and Arch Rock from Depoe Bay, Oregon.
Photography by Deb Snelson / Getty Images

Oregon

Oregon’s prime whale-watching seasons run from mid-December through mid-January — for the winter southern run, and then from late March through May in the whales’ northerly return. Oregon even has a resident group of about 200 whales that feed near its shores from June to mid-November, so the state really does have year-round watching opportunities.  

On high-traffic winter viewing days, spotters can see more than 30 whales per hour from shore. Volunteers at a Whale Watch event at Oregon’s Depoe Bay registered 94 individual whale viewings on Dec. 30, 2023. The Whale Trail organization lists 22 shore-viewing locations along the Oregon coast.

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Depoe Bay, on Oregon’s central coast, is also home to multiple whale-watching boat tour operators, with most departures listed as beginning in March. 

spinner image a humpback whale at Monterey Bay
There are 15 Whale Trail-highlighted locations in Northern California, including in Monterey, where a humpback whale feeds.
Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images

Northern California

The northern California coastline offers some prime land-based whale-watching spots, none better than Point Reyes National Seashore. This peninsula about 45 miles north of San Francisco provides clifftop views over the gray whale migration that at its peak has more than 1,000 whales per day passing within a mile of shore, according to Visit California. While January is the busiest whale-watching time for the southern migration, whales can be spotted on the northbound route beginning in March. Shoreside whale watching extends throughout northern California and into central California, at 15 Whale Trail-highlighted locations from Fort Bragg in the north through the San Francisco area, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Luis Obispo. Many tour operators run whale-watching boat tours (and even guided kayak expeditions) from northern California harbors, with popular tours leaving San Francisco’s Pier 39 (beginning in April); Bodega Bay, about an hour's drive from the town of Point Reyes Station; and down the coast in Santa Cruz and Monterey (with tours ongoing from February). 

Passionate whale watchers can book full day tours sailing the waters of the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, to view multiple types of whales and other marine mammals (April through December). Keep in mind, these waters can be quite choppy, even on apparently nice weather days, so don’t forget the motion sickness medication.

spinner image boats along the shore of Dana Pont, California
Dana Point, California, offers elevated vantage points where you can spot some whales with binoculars.
LagunaticPhoto / Getty Images

Southern California

Southern California doesn’t quite have the wealth of onshore whale-watching locations as northern California (with only four spots listed on the Whale Trail), but one highlight is the area around the Point Vicente Interpretive Center on the Palos Verdes peninsula. Located about 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, the interpretive center’s whale-focused museum provides context to the creatures. Step outside the center, and you can watch whales from this perch high above the Pacific. Migrating whales are visible from shore here from December through mid-May. Dana Point in Orange County and the bluffs at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve north of downtown San Diego also offer elevated vantage points where you can spot some whales with binoculars. 

Whale-watching boat tours depart from harbors in Long Beach and Redondo Beach year-round, with the prime gray whale viewing season taking place from November through April. San Diego is home to at least three whale-watching tour operators who highlight gray whale season from December through April, and even offer a free future booking if you don’t see a whale on your cruise. 

spinner image boat full of tourists observing a whale in the distance
Whale watching boat tours in Hawai‘i offer a chance to view whales during the typical whale-watching season from November to April.
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson

Hawai‘i

Unlike the western U.S. mainland coast, Hawai‘i is an end destination for migratory whales, not just a transit point. Hawai‘i’s warm waters serve as a similar winter feeding and breeding area for humpbacks as Mexico does for the gray whale migration. The typical Hawai‘i whale-watching season stretches from November to April, with peak population arriving in February. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 humpbacks visit Hawai‘i each year at the end of a 3,500-mile journey from summer feeding grounds in Alaskan waters.

On land, the Hawaiian islands provide a wealth of viewpoints from which whales can be spotted with the naked eye, or by using binoculars. You can visit high-ground lookout points, many beaches, or sometimes even see whales from the convenience of your hotel balcony. On the island of Hawai‘i, the hilltop Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site overlooks wide ocean vistas with great whale viewings — there’s a reason Pu‘ukoholā means “hill of the whale” in the Hawaiian language. On the last Saturdays of January through March, volunteers gather for an official whale-spotting count there, a project of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Other top land-based viewing locations across the islands include: the Kīlauea Lighthouse and Kapa‘a Overlook on Kaua‘i; Papawai Point and McGregor Point lookouts on Maui; atop Diamond Head; and the 600-foot sea cliffs overlooking Makapu‘u Beach on O‘ahu.

Hawai‘i, Maui, Kaua‘i and O‘ahu all offer accredited whale-watching boat trips from multiple tour operators on each island. Some tours include cultural elements and educational insights, while others are more focused on food, drink and sunsets along with the whale watching. The Hawai‘i Tourism Authority website is a good place to search for a tour that matches your location and needs. If you’re lucky, you can even enjoy some free whale-watching shows while riding the ferry between Maui and Moloka‘i or Lāna‘i — as the shallow channels there are popular with whales.  

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