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How to Prepare for Whale Watching in the San Francisco Bay

Make the most of this seasonal event with our top tips from a naturalist guide.

Hi, I'm Matt!

Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Northern California. He's penned pieces for publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, TIME, and National Geographic Traveler. He's also written or updated more than a dozen guidebooks about Las Vegas. When he gets to travel for leisure, his favorite destinations are Hawaii and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.

February through April is considered whale season in Northern California—the time when it’s most likely you’ll spot whales in the bay or in the Pacific within a few miles of shore. This also means late winter and early spring are the best times to take a whale watching cruise from San Francisco. Here are some tips for making the most of your experience.

When to go

The best time to go whale watching in the San Francisco Bay.

March and April are prime time for gray whale mommas to swim north from Mexico with their calves, and local whale watching companies report that mothers and calves are typically sighted in the bay pretty much nonstop, all season long. Translation: There’s no guarantee, but you can be fairly certain that you’ll catch at least a glimpse of these majestic marine creatures. Logistically speaking, the wind tends to pick up in the afternoons, so morning trips are often better than those that leave after lunch.

Friends whale watch in the San Francisco Bay.
Wearing layers is a good option if you want to whale watch in the SF Bay.Foto: Rosa Furneaux / Viator

What to wear

Keep warm and dry(ish) out on the water.

Even in summer, it’s cold out on the bay and ocean. No matter which trip you take, you’re likely to be battered by the wind for most of the day. Michael Pierson, a naturalist with SF Whale Tours, says the weather can change quickly on the water in Northern California, and recommends layering to be ready for anything. “Start with long underwear or something warm like that, and layer up from there,” he says. “You want to be able to add or lose layers as the tour goes on.” And be sure to bring a rainproof windbreaker to wear as your outer layer; that should keep you dry in the event of sea spray or actual rain.

How to avoid motion sickness

Don’t let a queasy stomach thwart your experience.

Seasickness can easily derail a whale watching trip. Unfortunately, once you get it, there’s not really anything you can do to get rid of it (except vomit). That means avoidance is key. Medications such as Dramamine or Bonine usually help, although motion sickness wristbands or patches behind the ears can make a difference too. Pierson notes that it’s also important to make good choices about what you eat before the tour. “The last thing you want to do is have a big greasy meal before you go out,” he jokes. Another suggestion—minimize liquid intake before departing, as bathroom time can exacerbate an upset belly.

Whales breach off the coast of San Francisco.
There are lots of whale watching options off the coast of San Francisco.Foto: Pete Niesen / Shutterstock

Which tour option to choose

Tips for picking the best tour for you.

Not all whale watching trips are alike. Some cruise around the bay looking for whales. Others go to the Golden Gate Bridge and back. Others go under the bridge, out a few miles, and tool around looking for blows. In summer, the nonprofit Oceanic Society even hosts full-day (usually 6-hour) excursions 27 miles (44 kilometers) west to waters around the Farallon Islands, home to the largest pelagic seabird population in the US.

Whichever tour you select, small-boat excursions tend to be more intimate, as the vessels hold fewer passengers. The downside? You can’t really move around. Pierson says he prefers leading bigger trips, because everybody has room to breathe. “It’s nice to have room to move around,” he says. “The bottom line is that if a whale is going to come over to your boat, it’s going to approach your boat no matter what the size.”

Stay on dry land

Whale watching needn’t involve a boat trip.

Of course another way to see whales from the San Francisco Bay Area is to look for them from shore. The bluffs beyond the town of Mendocino and the cliffs overlooking Mavericks Beach in Half Moon Bay are reliable perches for seeing spouts. Perhaps the biggest benefit to this approach? It’s totally free.

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