Photo credit: Adam Ernster/Condor Express Whale Watching
There’s a reason why the Santa Barbara Channel is one of the west coast’s best areas for whale watching. Its nutrient-rich water is home to hundreds of species of marine life as well as a wide variety of seabirds. Spotting dolphins is a daily occurrence, along with seasonal appearances of migrating whales. A whale watching trip here combines nature, adventure and a potential glimpse of the biggest mammals on Earth.
The Santa Barbara Channel is also known as the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area. This prestigious accolade marks a commitment to responsible and sustainable cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) watching, solidifying the channel as one of only two such areas in the United States and the ninth worldwide.
From late November through April, thousands of Pacific gray whales migrate through the channel first heading south to the warm water lagoons of Baja California. On their return in the spring many gray whales, especially mothers with newborn calves, hug Santa Barbara’s coastline heading to their eventual summer home in the Bering Strait off Alaska. While you’re visiting Santa Barbara, enjoy the many leisurely trails along the scenic bluffs that also double as perfect vantage points to sit and watch for these magnificent creatures heading north.
Late spring through early fall, the Santa Barbara Channel offers regular sightings of humpback whales and the largest mammal on earth, the colossal blue whale. You might also spot the shy minke whale, fin whale, Pacific white-sided dolphin, coastal bottlenose dolphin and rissos dolphin.
There are a variety of ways to get out on the water for a whale watching adventure in Santa Barbara:
At 75 feet, the Condor Express delivers up to 120 passengers to the Santa Barbara Channel’s prime feeding grounds. With in-cabin and upper-deck seating, the Condor Express is a great way to see one of the many species of whales that visit the area throughout the year. You can even enjoy a spectacular dinner cruise.
With a maximum capacity of 15 passengers, the Sunset Kidd is one of the more serene ways to see whales in their natural habitat. The 41-foot yacht sails alongside giant California Gray Whales as they break the surface, allowing you to not only see the whales but also hear them as they catch their breath. Passengers can help sail the Sunset Kidd or sit back and enjoy the wildlife, which may include everything from minkes to orcas and even the giant blue whale.
If you want a closer look at the Channel Islands, Captain Jack’s might be just the right tour. The four-and-a-half hour trip off the Santa Barbara coast offers a spectacular look at blue, humpback, gray and killer whales from the comfort of a 75-ft. catamaran. Passengers enjoy beer, wine and snacks while catching a glimpse of the beauty and grandeur of the Pacific’s most majestic creatures as they migrate to Baja to give birth, and then again as they head north with their babies.
One third of the marine mammals in the world can be spotted in the waters off the coast of Santa Barbara, and Celebration Cruises wants you to see them up close. From February to May, 27 species of whales—including humpbacks, minkes and California grays—share these waters with Celebration Cruises’ 46-passenger luxury yacht. You’ll also see sea lions and dolphins on this Santa Barbara cruise.
Spotting Santa Barbara’s whales from the deck of a sailboat is an experience like no other. Santa Barbara Sailing Center’s 50-foot catamaran, Double Dolphin, silently slips through the waves so you can get as close as possible to the whales and other aquatic animals without disturbing them. Reservations are required for this extraordinary cruise that runs seven days a week.
New to the Santa Barbara Harbor, SunSwept Sailing offers whale watching excursion aboard sailing yacht Kelpie, a 35-foot sailboat equipped to take you and and up to five others on a private, three-hour whale watching excursion. If you’re looking to escape the crowds and experience a more intimate adventure, this is the cruise for you.