Know How to Spot These 5 Whales in Northern California

Know How to Spot These 5 Whales in Northern California

Whales are among the largest and oldest animals on Earth, with a spectacular tale of evolution. They began as land-dwelling, hoofed mammals more than 50 million years ago, and then returned to the sea as warm-blooded ocean dwellers. Like humans, whales are sentient creatures who nurse their offspring, form bonds and friendships, sing and play.

They come in all shapes and sizes, from the snowy white arctic belugas and tusked narwhals — which inspired mythical tales of unicorns — to the great orca hunters, singing humpbacks and 100-foot blue whale leviathans, the largest creatures on earth. An 1820 attack on a New England whaling ship by a sperm whale, which can weigh up to 45 tons and grow to 52 feet long, inspired Henry Melville to write Moby Dick. Fortunately, the waters off California today serve as a sanctuary rather than a slaughterhouse for these magnificent creatures, typically spotted during their migrations to and from warmer waters.

Want to see one of these incredible creatures up close? Check out the top Whale Watching tours in Monterey here.

Featured Photo: Humpback whale below the Golden Gate Bridge, courtesy of Bill Keener/GGCR
Photo: Humpback feeding, courtesy of Bill Keener/GGCR

Gray whales swimming from Alaska to Mexico pass San Francisco and Monterey Bay as they head south December through mid-February, and then again as they head north mid-February through April. Humpback whales traditionally appear in the nutrient-rich Monterey Bay (and occasionally even inside San Francisco Bay) mid-April through December, before heading south to Mexico. With changing weather patterns and an increase in population, some humpback whales have even decided to live in Monterey Bay year-round. Killer whales, or orcas, can be seen throughout the year too, but they’re most common April through June. They add a touch of murderous suspense to whale-watching tours as they prey upon gray whales and their young migrating northward.

There’s more than one kind of cetacean to spot on a whale-watching tour in Northern California. Here are five to observe swimming in or near Monterey Bay at various times of the year, according to Nancy Black, founder of Monterey Bay Whale Watch.

A gray whale breaches the water, emerging vertically against a backdrop of the expansive ocean and a clear blue sky. The whale's head and upper body are visible, appearing dark and textured with the surrounding waves crashing gently. It's one of the majestic scenes you can experience when you explore San Diego.
Photo: Courtesy of Amanda Townsel/Oceanic Society

Gray Whale

September – April

Some 25,000 gray whales migrate along the coast between Alaska and Baja California twice a year. Traveling closest to shore in spring to protect their babies from orcas, they may journey 10,000 miles or more round trip. Gray whales can grow up to 49 feet long and weigh up to 90,000 pounds.

A humpback whale breaching out of the water with its body partially airborne. Water splashes around as the whale emerges from the ocean near Northern California. A bird is flying in the background against a cloudy sky. The distant shoreline is faintly visible.
Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Bianchetta/Monterey Bay Whale Watch

Humpback Whale

April – December

Named for its distinctive back, these whales breed and bear young in Mexico in winter, then migrate to Central and Northern California in summer and fall to feed on sardines, anchovies and krill. Now numbering about 800, after being hunted nearly to extinction, they can reach 60 feet long and weigh up to 40 tons. Black considers them the most active and curious, often approaching her tours to get a closer look.

An aerial view of a blue whale swimming in the ocean off Northern California. The whale's sleek, blue-gray body is partially submerged, with water splashing around it. The animal's dorsal fin and a portion of its tail are visible above the water.
Photo: Courtesy of NOAA

Blue Whale

May – October

The largest of all creatures ever to roam our planet, the endangered blue whale feeds only on krill, coming into Monterey Bay from June through October when it’s most abundant, according to Black. The estimated 2,200 whales in the Northern Pacific population  typically grow 80 to 100 feet long, weighing up to 50 tons and able to blow a spout 30 feet in the air.

Three orcas swim close together in the blue ocean off Northern California, their black-and-white bodies partially submerged and fins prominently visible. Two orcas' heads are above water, creating small splashes, and one orca is exhaling a plume of misty air.
Photo: Courtesy of Monterey Bay Whale Watch

Killer Whale

March – June

Also known as orcas, these are actually the largest member of the dolphin family, weighing up to 11 tons and spanning 32 feet. Pods of eight to 12 will attack gray whales, seals, sea lions and elephant seals in Monterey Bay, with the most frequent sightings January through May and September through November, according to Black.

A close-up image of a minke whale swimming on the ocean's surface at night. The whale's sleek, dark body contrasts with the surrounding water, and a noticeable white patch is present near its fins. This sighting is part of the growing population of whales in Northern California.
Photo: Courtesy of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

Minke Whale

July – October

The smallest of whales with baleen (keratin plates) in their mouths rather than teeth, the minke population in the Pacific Northwest is estimated at 370 year-round. They weigh up to 10 tons and grow up to 35 feet, with a relatively large dorsal fin that makes them easy to spot, Black says, most frequently in summer and fall.

Looking for more things to do in the area?

Visit our What to Do in Northern California page!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top