California Sea Life to Spot During Your Next Trip to Santa Barbara

Photo credit: Adam Ernster

The California coast is abundant with incredible marine life—from pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) to cetaceans (whales and dolphins). During your next visit to Santa Barbara, be sure to pack your binoculars, because there is plenty of native fauna to witness thriving in their natural habitats, from the can’t-miss beaches of Santa Barbara all the way out to the Channel Islands. Keep reading to explore some of the various species of sea life you can encounter in Santa Barbara and find out the best spots for these common animal sightings—including local tour operators well versed in spotting these miraculous moments.

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Sea Lions & Seals

California sea lions are found up and down the coast of California. In Santa Barbara, they can be seen lounging in the Santa Barbara Harbor, sunbathing on beaches and rock formations on the Channel Islands and even perched on buoys just a few miles off the coast. These playful pinnipeds are distinguished by their long front flippers that help them traverse on land, sleek brown coats, outer (but tiny!) ears and their loud barks that can be heard for miles. San Miguel Island, one of the five Channel Islands that comprises Channel Islands National Park, is home to one of the biggest rookeries of California sea lions in the world with a population of roughly 80,000 animals. Steller sea lions, the largest of the sea lions, are lighter in color in comparison to the California sea lion and have thick necks, similar to a lion’s mane. Much more of a rarity to see, Steller sea lions can be found both near the coast and on the Channel Islands.

Pacific harbor seals—another common pinniped found along the California coast—have spotted, silvery-gray coats and short front flippers. Different from sea lions, seals do not have external ear flaps. They are considered “crawling” seals, meaning they have to flop on their bellies to move about on land, and are relatively quiet compared to sea lions. For a chance to witness California sea lions or harbor seals in the wild, catch a ride aboard Lil’ Toot, which takes you through the harbor (they can often be found basking in the sun on the bait dock) and cruises past the green mile marker buoy just outside the harbor mouth.

Northern elephant seals are distinguished by their large “noses,” known as proboscis, which are only found in males and look similar to an elephant’s trunk. These seals can be found on San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Santa Rosa islands. Book a multi-day, multi-island trip with Channel Islands Expeditions to try and catch a glimpse at these creatures, in addition to many others, while they lay in groups on the beach.

Whales & Dolphins

In 2023, the Santa Barbara Channel officially became the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area, which celebrates the area’s commitment to responsible and sustainable marine life observation. Abundant with varieties of whales, dolphins and vibrant fish, the channel makes for an excellent place to witness some of the ocean’s inhabitants. Each year, gray whales make their annual migration—the longest migration of any mammal on Earth—from their feeding grounds in Alaska to the warm waters, and breeding grounds, of Baja California. This route subsequently passes through the Santa Barbara Channel, making the months of February through May the best time to view them during their quest south. These whales can grow up to 45 feet long and are—you guessed it—brownish to light gray in color. During the migration season, these whales can often be viewed from land at higher vantage points such as Shoreline Park.

Blue whales, the largest known mammal to have ever lived, typically pass through the channel between June and December. They can reach about 100 feet in length, weigh approximately 160 tons and are rather slender in shape.

Humpback whales have particularly long flippers and, of course, it’s iconic dorsal fin that gives it its name. Known to breach from and slap the water with their fins, this species of whale is perhaps one of the most exciting to witness in person. The best time to view these magnificent giants in the Santa Barbara Channel is between May and September.

The eastern North Pacific long-beaked common dolphins are the only subspecies of common dolphin that reside in the United States and can travel in mega-pods of thousands of animals. Relatively smaller in size, these social creatures often swim in the wake of boats and jump above the water. Known for their curved mouths giving the appearance of a friendly, permanent smile, bottlenose dolphins are often seen in pods, engaging in behaviors like leaping from the water and riding the bow waves of boats. 

To view these cetaceans and more out at sea, hop aboard one of these whale watching outfitters.

Seabirds & Shorebirds

The California brown pelican, a distinctive bird with a large bill and a throat pouch, is a frequent sight along the Santa Barbara coastline. These pelicans are known for their dramatic plunge-diving technique to catch fish, often seen gliding just above the water’s surface. Santa Barbara’s abundant marine life and protected areas provide an ideal habitat for these birds, especially during their breeding season in the spring and summer.

The ashy storm-petrel is a small, elusive seabird that can be spotted off the coast of Santa Barbara, particularly around the Channel Islands. This species is recognized by its smoky gray color and large wings (in proportion to its body).

The waters and rocky shorelines around Santa Barbara are home to three varieties of cormorants: double-crested, Brandt’s and pelagic. Double-crested cormorants are easily recognizable by their yellow-orange throat patch (more visible during breeding season); San Miguel, Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands are home to various breeding colonies of this species. Brandt’s cormorants, distinguished by their vivid blue throat during breeding season, prefer coastal areas with steep cliffs for nesting. According to the National Park Service, this species is only found in North America; San Miguel Island is home to a prominent breeding colony in Southern California. 

Pelagic cormorants, the smallest and most slender of the three, are typically found to spend time near the coast, and display a more iridescent body sheen. These seabirds are excellent swimmers and divers, mainly due to their feathers’ ability to absorb water, which propels them deeper below the surface of the ocean. Because of this, they are often seen with their wings spread out to dry before they are able to effectively fly again. Keep an eye out for the pelagic cormorants in the Santa Barbara Harbor, as you might spot one drying off after a dive.

Western gulls, one of the most distinguishable shorebirds on the planet, also call Santa Barbara their home. While you can find them at almost any Santa Barbara beach, they are also found in large colonies on each of the Channel Islands. In fact, Anacapa Island hosts the largest protected breeding colony of western gulls in the world.

Snowy plovers, one of the tiniest (and cutest!) shorebirds in this region, have short legs and a large white underbelly. They reside permanently on Santa Rosa Island and are considered summer residents of Santa Cruz Island

Catch a glimpse of these birds and more at Andree Clark Bird Refuge or aboard a one- or multi-day trip to Channel Islands National Park with Channel Islands Expeditions or Santa Barbara Adventure Company.

Other Marine Life

The California spiny lobster is not your quintessential lobster—in fact, it doesn’t even have the iconic claws like the common Maine lobster species does. Smaller in size compared to the Maine lobster, these crustaceans tend to stick close to the kelp forests and surfgrass beds just off the coast and are considered a delicacy at local Santa Barbara eateries.

Sea urchin, particularly of the red and purple varieties, are commonly found in the Santa Barbara Channel and over the last 30 years, has become a popular specialty seafood. In fact, a major portion of Santa Barbara sea urchin exports, known as uni, is destined for Japan. According to a 2003 fishery report conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, archaeological evidence suggests that sea urchins have been fished by coastal Native American tribes for centuries. Learn about where you can try spiny lobster and sea urchin in Santa Barbara.

While there are lots of fish native to these waters, the garibaldi is one worth noting as it’s California’s official state marine fish. Bright orange in color, this fish is primarily found near the coast, in shallow, rocky reefs. These three species can be easily spotted during a kayaking, snorkeling or scuba diving trip out to the Channel Islands with Santa Barbara Adventure Company or Channel Islands Expeditions. Or, map your own course and charter a sailboat with Santa Barbara Sailing Center

Explore the outdoors in Santa Barbara with this guide, and you just might catch a glimpse of one of these animals for yourself. Whether it’s the playful leaps of dolphins near the shore, the slow majestic glide of migrating whales or the curious seals near the docks, there’s always something extraordinary waiting to be discovered. 

Please respect the natural behaviors and habitats of wildlife by observing from a distance and not disturbing or touching these animals. If you encounter an injured marine animal in Santa Barbara, contact the City of Santa Barbara Stranded Marine Mammals hotline at (805) 567-1505 or fill out an online rescue form.