For many communities on the West Coast, whale-watching season is a big deal. It's celebrated with festivals, lectures, and, of course, countless whale-watching cruises. While some of the cruises can be pricey, many of the season's activities are affordably priced or even free. If catching a glimpse of whales on their annual migration between Alaska and Mexico is on your bucket list, here are some of the best places to witness the epic journey in late winter and early spring.
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Mendocino celebrates whales big time with three festivals: the Mendocino Whale Festival; the Little River Whale Festival (March 10-12), which offers whale-watching walks for $5; and the Fort Bragg Whale Festival (March 18-19). Mendocino is a good place to spot whales on your own. The coastal trails of Mendocino Headlands State Park and the Point Arena Lighthouse can be good vantage points -- just be sure to bring binoculars. For a closer view, Fort Bragg Fishing offers two-hour boat excursions for $35 a person.
There are numerous places to enjoy whale watching in San Diego. Land-based vantage points include Whale Watch Lookout Point near the historic lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument, the towering bluffs at Torrey Pines State Reserve, and the back patio at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. By sea, Hornblower Cruises offers 3.5-hour trips for $41 for adults and $20 to $23 for children depending on the day of the week.
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GetMyBoat, a peer-to-peer boat rental marketplace, is yet another way to get an up-close view without spending a fortune. A boat owner on the site is offering 2.5-hour whale-watching tours that also showcase seals, dolphins, porpoises, and sea bird colonies, as well as views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The cost is $45 for adults and $35 for children. The tours on a 65-foot boat are staffed by a crew from San Francisco Whale Tours.
About 27 miles north of San Francisco, there's a spot off Point Reyes National Seashore that attracts 94 percent of migrating Pacific gray whales. In January alone, more than 1,000 whales pass this point every day. There's no entrance fee for the park, but to get to the point during whale season, visitors must take a shuttle bus ($7 for those 16 and older). There are free ranger talks about the whales' migration.
Gray whales, minke whales, and fin whales are just some of the possible marine animal sightings in the Oceanside area, about 40 minutes north of San Diego. Oceanside Adventures, based in Oceanside Harbor, offers two-hour boat trips that also promise to show participants four species of dolphins, sea lions, and sea birds. The trip is narrated by the captain, who is a certified naturalist. Tickets cost $45 for adults and $34 for children 12 and under.
Whale watching here is akin to going on a safari in Africa, thanks to the sheer abundance of whales passing through the area, including humpbacks, blue whales, gray whales, minke whales, and fin whales. Monterey Bay Whale Watch offers boat trips that start at $44 for adults, $29 for children 4 to 12, and $15 for kids 3 and under. Whales can also be spotted from land in the Monterey area. The best bet is to drive south along the Big Sur coast via Highway 1.
Whale watching in Long Beach can be a two-for-one when it comes to learning about the magnificent creatures. The Aquarium of the Pacific is located at the docks where whale-watching cruises depart and has a special exhibit dedicated to whales. Harbor Breeze Cruises offers daily excursions staffed by an educator from the aquarium and crews who specialize in whale watching. Tickets for a three-hour boat tour are $35 for adults and $30 for children. The company offers a $10 discount for tickets booked online.
Washington's coast is famous for orca (killer whale) sightings. While whale watching here can be somewhat more expensive than other places, there are still deals to be had. Three-hour tours from Everett by Island Adventures Whale Watching are priced at $69 for adults and $29 for children, but several discounts are available. Those who prefer to see the animals from dry land can head to the San Juan Islands, where Lime Kiln Point State Park is a popular spot for whale watching.
There's more to Santa Cruz than just surfing and stunning beaches. Depending on the time of year, gray whales, blue whales, and humpbacks can all be seen here, drawn by prime feeding areas at the north end of Monterey Bay. In addition to whale-watching cruises, kayaking is a popular way to encounter the beautiful mammals here. Venture Quest Santa Cruz offers guided gray whale kayak tours for $70 and humpback whale tours for $75.
Gray whales pass about five miles off the Oregon coast on their way down to Mexico to breed in December and January. On the way back, they come even closer, passing about half-mile offshore on their leisurely return journey, which takes place from March through June. The migration brings about 18,000 whales by the state's coast each year. Tradewinds Charters in Depoe Bay offers whale-watching cruises that start at $20 for adults and $10 to $18 for children.
Nearly 30 whale, dolphin, and porpoise species have been seen near Channel Islands National Park northwest of Los Angeles, which means you'll have a pretty good chance of spotting something on a visit there. Just what you see depends on when you visit. The peak months for gray whale migration are January through March; summer is the best time to spot humpback and blue whales. Tickets for whale-watching cruises with Channel Islands Sportfishing start at $50.
Between an annual Festival of Whales (March 11-22) and an "eye-to-eye viewing pod" designed to make participants feel like they're swimming with whales, there's plenty to see here. Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari offers the underwater viewing on its cruises. Prices are $65 for adults and $45 for children. Some experts posit that migrating whales use the area's 200-foot-high cliffs as a landmark, making them a good place to view whales for free.
Newport is a whale hotspot thanks to a nearby nutrient-rich underwater canyon. Two of the best-known companies for whale watching here are Newport Landing and Davey's Locker. Both offer daily tours. Newport Landing prices start at $36 for adults and $30 for children 3 to 12 (children under 3 are free). Davey's Locker is offering a free whale-watching cruise for kids up to 12 years old through May 1.
No whale-watching story would be complete without mentioning the breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico. Scammon's Lagoon (Ojo de Liebre) in Guerrero Negro is a noted whale-watching destination and the closest place to the U.S. border to see whales where they breed. In a national park, the lagoon can draw more than 1,000 whales during the peak season. One of the best-known tour operators there is Malarrimo Eco-Tours, which offers four-hour trips costing $46 for adults and $36 for children.