Where To Go Whale Watching in LA: Whale Cruises and Viewpoints for Landlubbers
Winter is prime whale watching season in Southern California, and there are several ways to spy on the giant mammals as they pass through on their 6,000-mile quest for Mexican romance. Each year, between December and April, roughly 20,000 Pacific gray whales migrate past our beaches, and March brings particularly high traffic because that's when the underwater procession starts to turn around.
With reduced capacity and ocean breezes, whale watch cruises are one of the few LA County approved activities, making these tours book up fast—so be sure to make a reservation. If your landlubbers have touchy tummies and like to stay on shore, with a little luck and clear skies, even a hike or sand sledding can turn into a whale watching activity.
While we are trying to promote safer activities that occur outdoors or with social distancing guidelines in place, please keep your family and others safe by always wearing a mask and maintaining appropriate distance.
Bring your binoculars! Photo by Yeonsang/CC-BY-2.0
Whale Watching Boat Trips
Prices and information are accurate as of January 2021. However, guidelines are changing rapidly, so please call a cruise line to confirm that it is still operating before making plans to go. All cruises are operating at reduced capacity.
Daily, year round
Newport Landing offers 3 different daily whale watching trips departing from Newport Beach throughout the year, providing close-up peeks at dolphins, sea lions, marine birds, sharks, and whales up to 80 feet in length. Prices start at $28 for kids and $38 for adults. Kids under 3 are $5, and this year there is a $5 supplement for the most popular times, due to the reduction in passengers per trip for COVID-19 safety compliance.
Daily, year round
While the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is currently closed, the two companies that run whale watch tours for the aquarium are still running tours, and families can book through these companies directly. This is one of two companies, and reservations are essential for this popular cruise. Tours are daily on weekdays and 5 times a day on weekends for 45 minutes or 2 1/2 hours. Tickets are between $15-$35.
Daily, year round
Marina del Rey
Marina del Rey Whale Watching is the second company that partners with Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, and this year it is running tours twice a day on weekends only; tickets are $25 for kids and $50 for adults. While the best time to see the migrating California gray whale is November through May, the tours run year round, as blue and fin whale sightings are possible at any time.
Like Cabrillo, the Aquarium of the Pacific is currently closed, but its whale watching partner is open. Usually, the aquarium books the tours through Harbor Breeze Cruises, right next door. This year, book a whale watch adventure directly with Harbor Breeze Cruises. Tours are 2 hours and run twice a day; tickets are $30-$50 (save $5-$10 per ticket by booking online).
Where there's a will, there's a whale, and often a few dolphins. Photo by Carla Mitroff/Dana Wharf Whale Watch
Daily, year round
Adults $56; Children (3-12) $39, Free (2 and under)
Dana Wharf cruises Dana Point Harbor and the Orange County coastline with whale watching cruises and deep sea fishing adventures. Privately chartered whale watching boats, catamarans, and sailboats are available in addition to scheduled tours. And Dana Wharf actually guarantees a good whale or dolphin spotting—or they give you a free ticket to come back! Inside tip: take advantage of Half Price Tuesdays, where all tickets are (you guessed it) half off.
Throughout the year
Adults $40; Children (3-12) $29
Island Packers' territory is the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, where gray, humpback, blue, mink, and about 25 other species of whales and dolphins have been identified. The prices above reflect gray whale cruises, which are relatively close to shore; more expensive cruises head farther out in search of blue and humpback whales during the summer months. Winter trips to see the great whale migration depart twice a day through mid-April in 2021.
February & March
Spirit Cruises departs from Port o' Call most Saturdays and Sundays throughout the season. Whale watching trips are available when whale sightings are frequent and reliable. As of January 2021, the whale watching trips haven't started up yet, but Spirit Cruises hopes to be able to offer them soon. In the meantime, the Long Beach Harbor Cruises are fun and inexpensive ($15 for adults, kids are free) boat adventures for even the youngest kids.
March & April
Another company heading out into the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, these folks offer daily trips on weekdays, and twice daily on weekends during the season. In 2021 these tours are currently scheduled to begin on March 1 and run through April. Tickets are $60 per person (child or adult).
No need to venture out to sea to see whales. Point Vicente in Rancho Palos Verdes
Best Whale Watching Spots
While whale cruises sound magnificent, some of us don't feel so magnificent rocking back and forth on a boat for two hours. If finding a spot to scan the waves from terra firma sounds more enjoyable, there are definitely scenic spots worth staking out. In theory, you could pick any place with a good view of the sea and wait for a sighting—surfers have been surprised on more than one occasion—but there are vantage points that improve your chances
Dana Point averages 40 to 50 whales passing within view of land per day during the season; chances are good one of them may come up for air while you watch.
Point Vicente has those whale-counting volunteers on site all season, so even when the festival isn't on, there is always someone there to help visitors scan the horizon.
Point Mugu has several hiking trails that look out over the sea, and the water is surprisingly deep quite close to shore at the park's Sycamore Cove Beach. The park has hosted a whale festival in years when funding wasn't tight.
Leo Carrillo in Malibu is another state park that has hosted whale festivals in other years. Pick a spot with a view, and unpack the picnic—you can't go wrong.
If you are creating your own whaling adventure, you might want to check out this whale website; it's a wealth of information on whales.
Almost made it without a "thar she blows" reference. But couldn't quite do it. Photo courtesy of Newport Landing
Whale Watching Festivals
March 6 & 7 2021
The festival is on for 2021 (the whales don't know about COVID-19 and are on the move), but organizers aren't yet sure if the celebration can be held in person, virtually, or a hybrid model. Regardless, there will be a way to see whales at Dana Point on the first weekend of March. Check the website for updates. If you're not sure how to find Dana Point, ask a whale. They use Dana Point's headland as a landmark on their journey southward each year, causing them to come closer to land (and eager whale spotters) there than anywhere else. This is the biggest event in the regions, with activities that usually include a parade, a street fair, a campfire program, environmental education programs, and a much-anticipated rubber ducky race. We will have to wait and see what 2021 allows...
April 10, 2021
Point Vicente Interpretive Center, Palos Verdes
This celebration is scheduled for April 10, but the city advises that families check back before the date, as it may have to be canceled. The cliffs at Point Vicente offer a perfect vantage point for seeing whatever is happening offshore, which is why there has been a lighthouse here for nearly a century. It's also why whale-watching volunteers sit in a row here all season long, eyes to the sea, counting each whale for the American Cetacean Society annual census. All of this makes it a logical place for a festival. Families can climb to the top of the lighthouse, tour whale exhibits, participate in games and crafts, and never worry about missing a whale with volunteers poised to ring the whale bell. And if the festival is called off this year, the cliffs are still a great place to come and search for whales as a family.
Originally published March 5, 2012