Note: Some companies on this list may have limited operations due to COVID-19. Check with operators about availability before you book.
Monterey, California, is a destination for whale watchers for good reason. Not only is it one of the only places in the world where you can spot whales year-round, it’s also home to the Monterey Canyon, one of the deepest submarine canyons on the western coast of the United States and a perfect habitat for a variety of marine species. Wildlife visible in the vicinity include blue, gray, humpback, fin, minke and orca (aka killer) whales, as well as multiple species of dolphins, porpoises and seabirds. While some sea creatures can be spotted all year long, specific varieties change with each season. U.S. News, after reviewing expert opinion and traveler commentary, determined that these boat tours are the best way to see what the water holds. They all have guides well-versed in marine biology eager to share their insights.
Note: Some companies have minimum age requirements for their whale watching trips.
Spend 2 1/2 to three hours on the lookout for marine life in the waters off the coast of Pacific Grove, California, on this excursion. Whale watchers consistently call the guides and other crew members knowledgeable and friendly. Throughout the year, Discovery Whale Watch typically offers both morning and afternoon outings, with departure times at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; 5 p.m. sunset cruises are offered during summer. Extended (six-hour) trips beginning at 8 a.m. are also offered on select days. Boats, which usually carry no more than 35 passengers, depart from Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Tickets cost around $75 for adults and $65 for children 4 to 12.
Monterey Bay Whale Watch offers boat rides year-round, but the animals likely to be seen varies by season. Gray whales are the main attraction in January, February and March, while orcas, humpbacks and blue whales (among others) may be observable in other months. Whale watchers offer enthusiastic assessments of guides, who are also marine biologists and consistently called both informative and entertaining. Ticket prices depend on the day of the week and the length of the excursion, which can range from three to eight hours. Tickets for three- to 3 1/2-hour trips start at $60 for adults and $48 for children ages 4 to 12; four-hour trips start at $65 for adults and $53 for children. Eight-hour outings start at $140 per person, regardless of age. Fees increase for weekend tours. Cruises depart daily, but exact departure times vary by trip. The company also runs pelagic seabird voyages in the summer and fall.
Observe the teeming wildlife of Monterey Bay on one of these trips, which are available throughout the year. Tour-takers applaud the captain and crew members for their ability to locate whales and other creatures, and appreciate their expertise and commentary. Three- to four-hour trips take place daily, typically starting at 10 a.m. on weekdays and at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets start at $95 for adults and $85 for children 4 to 12. Adults can elect to watch from the upper deck for about $115. Boats leave from Moss Landing Harbor, which is about 20 miles north of Monterey. Custom charters are also available.
As its name suggests, Fast Raft Ocean Safaris uses rigid hull inflatable boats with limited capacity (maximum six passengers) to explore the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It operates several whale watching trips, each designed to account for the seasonal variations of animal activity. From April through November, it offers three-hour trips departing from Moss Landing that focus on blue whales, humpbacks and dolphins. Tickets for these outings, which typically commence daily at 8 a.m., start at $185 per person. In April and May, it operates daylong (six- to eight-hour) trips dedicated to observing killer whales’ pursuit of gray whales. Fees for these trips, which depart at 8 a.m., start at around $295. Winter whale watching – which could include sightings of gray, humpback and killer whales – is also available from December through March for about $185. Winter outings depart from Cannery Row. Regardless of which option you choose, you’re likely to find the guides accommodating, friendly and experienced, according to reviewers.
Several tours depart Old Fisherman’s Wharf.Getty Images
Princess Monterey Whale Watching
Cruise Monterey Bay in comfort on a spacious 100-foot boat with a heated cabin, large windows and outdoor seating on these trips. Passengers invariably find the crew members to be dedicated, helpful and informed professionals. Princess Monterey typically offers multiple daily departure times on its two boats. Tickets cost approximately $60 for adults and $40 for children 3 to 11, with an additional $20 fee per person for limited upper deck seating. Food and beverages are available for purchase on board. Trips last about three hours and depart from Old Fisherman’s Wharf. One-hour sunset cruises and custom outings are also available.
Sea Goddess Whale Watching
Departing daily from Moss Landing, at the mouth of Monterey Bay Canyon, these two- to three-hour trips provide opportunities to observe the whales residing in or passing through the Pacific Ocean. Marine wildlife enthusiasts tend to enjoy the informed commentary the guides provide on these boat rides. Trips occur daily all year long with both morning and afternoon launch times, usually at 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 and 3:30 p.m., though schedules may vary by season. Tickets run about $60 per adult and $40 per child 3 to 11, with upper deck access offered for an additional $20. Shark-seeking excursions and private charters are also available.
Hop aboard the eco-friendly, biodiesel-powered 43-foot Sanctuary on one of these outings. Sanctuary Cruises offers several whale watching trips of varying duration and price. Two- to three-hour rides departing several times daily cost about $75 for adults and $65 for children 5 to 12. Three- to four-hour trips departing at 11 a.m. cost approximately $95 for adults and $85 for children. Private charters are also available. Whichever trip you pick, you’re likely to find insightful guides able to answer any and all of your questions about oceanic life, according to reviewers. Boats depart from Moss Landing.
Throughout the year, these trips traverse Monterey Bay to offer glimpses of its numerous marine species, including not only whales, but also seals, sea lions, turtles and more. Trip takers frequently marvel at the ship captain’s ability to locate groups of whales. The staff also wins high marks for their friendliness and excellent customer service. Three-hour trips depart from Old Fisherman’s Wharf daily at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tickets start at $55 for adults and $35 for children younger than 12. In addition to whale watching expeditions, Chris’ also operates deep-sea fishing trips.