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Whale Watching in San Francisco

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This post covers options for whale watching in San Francisco, including details about the best times and places to go, what species you may see, and tours.


WHEN IS THE WHALE WATCHING SEASON?

There isn’t really one specific season for whale watching in San Francisco, because whales frequent this area throughout the year.

The only thing that changes by season is the type of whales you will likely see.

This is a pretty warm city, so there will be companies that offer whale watching services almost year-round.

The best time for whale watching in San Francisco is from December – May, as you’ll have the best opportunity to see more than one type of whale.

That said, you can spot other species during different months, so you shouldn’t discount an opportunity just because it doesn’t fall within this time frame.

The only time you should avoid going on a whale-watching adventure is from mid-November to mid-December.

This is the tail end of migration patterns for one group of whales and the very beginning of the season for another species.

As a result, you probably won’t see as many whales during this month.

Check our next section for more details about what types of whales you’ll see and when you will see them. 


WHAT TYPES OF WHALE CAN YOU SEE?

Depending on when you go whale watching in San Francisco, you’re going to see different species.

a whale leaping out of the water during a whale watching tour

This is because each type of whale has its own migration pattern, and many of them don’t pass by the city at the same time.  

 Keep that in mind and pay attention to the migration dates for these whales when planning out your trip ahead of time.

  • Humpback Whale (May - November)
  • Gray Whale (December - May)
  • Sperm Whale (December - May)
  • Orcas (December - May)
  • Blue Whale (July - October)

WHALE WATCHING TOURS

There are several different companies that offer whale watching tours in San Francisco.

In this section, we will cover some of the more popular options in the Bay area.

We will also include a breakdown of the pros and cons of taking a whale watching tour. 

Disclosure: We think you should consider seeing whales without a tour, but we have also provided other options. While our recommendations are always unbiased, we may receive a small share of sales through some of the links below at no cost to you. See the full text.


Oceanic Society

This group offers multiple whale watching tour options throughout the year, including at least one service that lasts for almost 8 hours!

Led by naturalists who know where to look for whales, you'll not only have a good chance of spotting a few, but you'll also learn a lot about these magnificent creatures along the way.

These tours are a bit more costly than others because of the experts on board, but if you really want to see and learn about whales, it might be worth the cost.

Here are some of the most important details about each tour they offer:

Fallon Islands Whale Watching

  • Tickets: Starting from $450
  • Dates: April - November
  • Availability: Saturday & Sunday
  • Hours: 9:30 am - 5 pm
  • Duration: 7 ½ hours
  • Learn more or book this tour.

Golden Gate Sailing Cruise

This company has an overall rating of 4 ½ out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor, indicating they're pretty darn good at what they do.


San Francisco Whale Tours

If you're looking for a tour that operates right out of the heart of San Francisco, this company departs from Pier 39, making this one of the easiest whale watching tours to take.

That being said, prices are a bit more costly for this outing than they are for others listed in this post, so it might not be affordable for everyone.

Here are the details you'll need to know before climbing onboard:

Like many of the other services listed in our post, this company also has a rating of 4 ½ out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor, so you can rely on them to provide excellent tours.


Sea Goddess Whale Watching

This company technically works out of Monterey Bay, but they are a great alternative to some of the other options on our list for those willing to make the trip.

One of the nice things about Sea Goddess is that they list their whale watching tours on Groupon, allowing you to save money on tickets.

This discount site frequently offers additional deals on top of their already low prices, so depending on when you decide to get your tickets, you could save an additional 10% - 20% off.

Here are the standard prices for their whale watching tours:

Although they currently have less than 1,000 reviews, this company enjoys a 5 out of 5 star rating on TripAdvisor. Although there have been a few negative reviews, an overwhelming majority of guests have given them a perfect score.


Skyline Sightseeing (formerly City Sightseeing)

Although this company is known more for their hop-on-hop-off bus tours, they also provide an excellent whale watching tour.

This tour will take you down San Francisco’s coastline to see all the wildlife in the Bay Area.

At over 2 hours in length, you should have plenty of time to find a few whales in the area and get a close look at them without causing a disturbance.

This service only operates from Spring to Fall. Depending on when you book your tour, you will likely see different types of whales.

Check our section on whale migration dates for more details about what to expect.

This tour does not include snacks or beverages, but you are allowed to bring food and drink with you.

It is recommended to wear layers of clothing so that you are prepared whether it’s warm or cold out on the water. 

Be sure to wear sunblock and bring any cameras or binoculars you might want to get the best view of whales on your trip.

  • Tickets: $45/Adults | $35/Children
  • Dates: March – October
  • Availability: 8 am, 11 am, 2 pm
  • Duration: 2 ½ hours
  • Not Currently Available.

With an overall rating of 4 ½ out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor, it’s safe to say that this is one of the best whale-watching tours in San Francisco. 


Other Whale Watching Tours

If you’re looking for a longer whale-watching tour or an outing that will take you to different whale viewing locations near San Francisco, there are plenty of great opportunities.

While some tours focus on Monterey Bay, others take you on a full-day trip to the Farallon Islands.

Ticket prices range from $45 - $99 per person depending on the length and structure of the service.

For more information on all of your options, make sure to check this list of whale watching tours

Be sure to check out Groupon as this website often offers discounted whale watching tours.

NOTE: If all else fails and you can't find a company offering whale watching tours in the Bay Area, you might still spot some whales on one of the many cruises available in San Francisco.

 
a whale's tail sticking out of the water
This photo of Princess Monterey Whale Watching is courtesy of TripAdvisor
 


Pros and Cons of Whale Watching Tours

There are a few things to consider before deciding whether or not to take a whale watching tour. 

Pro: Best Way to See Whales 

If you want to get really close to some whales, it’s hard to beat a boat tour that takes you out on the water.

Pro: Very Affordable 

These services are priced about as low as a traditional boat tour. Anytime you can get out on the waters of the Bay area for about $15/hr, you’re getting a pretty good deal.
Pro: Great for Kids 

With the possibility of seeing orcas and blue whales during the spring/summer months, children and families will love this activity.

Con: Seasickness 

Travelers who aren’t used to the choppy waters near San Francisco might get a little nauseous, as the boat will be moving up and down quite a bit.

Con: Might Not See a Whale 

None of these companies can guarantee that you’ll see a whale on your outing because it’s impossible to know whether or not they will be in the area or near the surface on the day/time you choose to go.


FREE LOCATIONS TO GO WHALE WATCHING

The best way to see whales in San Francisco is to take a boat out on the water, but that activity won’t be free.

If you’re working with a tight budget, you might want to consider visiting one of the following locations instead.

The video below is of whale sightings from Point Bonita Lighthouse, which is a short drive (map) from the city center.

 
While there’s no guarantee that you’ll see a whale, your chances are much better at these sites than anywhere else in the city.

In addition to these locations, you might also find a few good spots to stop and look for whales along Highway 1 near Pescadero.

Alternatively, if you are heading that far South, you might also want to stop in at Año Nuevo State Park which offers great views of both elephant seals and whales! 

NOTE: Some of these locations are currently closed as of August 2021 due to the pandemic.


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About The Author

Britt

Britt is a San Francisco Bay Area native, and has spent 25 years in this magical city. He has traveled to over 30 countries, and has never found a place he loves as much as this one! If you come to San Francisco, you might join one of Britt's tours of the city. A graduate of the University of Maryland and University of Southern California, he has been leading tours for Free Tours by Foot since 2015.
Updated: February 5th, 2022
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