Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area

On Oct. 20, 2023, the Santa Barbara Channel officially became the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area. This momentous occasion marks a commitment to responsible and sustainable cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) watching, solidifying its place as one of only two such areas in the United States and the ninth worldwide.


Embracing the ethos of responsible tourism, Whale Heritage Areas have earned their reputation as exceptional destinations for whale, dolphin and porpoise enthusiasts. These areas are a testament to the harmonious coexistence of these magnificent sea creatures and humankind. Moreover, they offer travelers a transparent, ethical and responsible way to witness the majesty of marine life.

For the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area, this commitment to sustainability is not merely a label but a way of life. Here, visitors can be assured of awe-inspiring and eco-conscious cetacean watching experiences.


The Santa Barbara Channel is celebrated as one of the world’s most biologically productive marine ecosystems, and its beauty knows no bounds. Stretching approximately 80 miles in length, 25 miles in width and boasting depths of over 1,000 feet in some areas, it is a vibrant hub of marine life. The channel’s intricate water circulation and dynamic upwelling make it a vital region for numerous varieties of sea creatures.

While humpback and gray whales are frequently spotted, visitors may also be treated to the sight of blue, fin, minke, sperm and Bryde’s whales. Numerous dolphin and porpoise species, including orcas, common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, can also be observed.

The channel’s allure varies throughout the year. From mid-February to mid-May, an estimated 28,000 gray whales migrate through the channel, often with mothers and calves swimming rather close to shore. For the best chance of spotting humpback whales, visit between May and September.


To immerse yourself in the wonders of the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area, a variety of reputable whale watching companies await.

  • Celebration Cruises: Offering whale watching tours just during the gray whale migration season, Celebration Cruises offers tours on Azure Seas, a 70-foot, multi-level yacht offering panoramic views. Visitors can take a cruise any time of year with Celebration Cruises, however the specific whale watching tours take place between mid-February to mid-May.
  • Channel Islands Expeditions: This naturalist-led whale watching excursion takes adventurers on a 4.5-hour tour to witness the wealth of wildlife throughout the Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Islands. This trip departs from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, about 35 miles south of Santa Barbara. Between Feb. 14 and April 7, Channel Islands Expeditions offers a “whale guarantee,” offering guests to return for free if whales aren’t spotted during the initial trip.
  • Condor Express Whale Watching: Offering year-round whale watching, the 75-foot Condor Express ensures safe and unique encounters with marine life. The vessel features a unique quad-jet configuration, meaning there are no exposed sharp propellers beneath the boat, thus ensuring the safety of any wildlife interactions.
  • Santa Barbara Sailing Center: Explore the channel aboard Double Dolphin, a 50-foot sailing catamaran, which offers 2.5-hour tours dedicated to whale watching during the gray whale migration from mid-February to mid-May.


Santa Barbara offers more than just whale watching; it’s a place where marine life is rich and abundant. Pay a visit to any of these museums and attractions to learn more about, or simply enjoy, Santa Barbara’s native sea residents.


Photos by Adam Ernster, aboard Condor Express