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From Orcas to Humpbacks, Here's Where to See Whales Around the Bay Area

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Photo shows four killer whales swimming together in the ocean.
A pod of transient killer whales in Monterey Bay. (Francois Gohier/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Orcas aren’t just in the news lately for attacking boats. In May, a whale-watching tour by the Farallon Islands experienced something rare: a sighting of 20 orcas (or killer whales). Then, just last week, many of those same orcas, plus a few new ones, were spotted by Monterey in an even bigger group of over 30.

“They were socializing, playing, very playful,” said Nancy Black, founder of the California Killer Whale Project. It was like a giant family gathering: Orcas typically travel in smaller family groups of two to seven whales, but multiple families will meet up for hunting or, in this case, fun. Black, who has been studying orcas near Monterey for 30 years, said that sightings that large are incredibly rare. But it’s been oddly frequent in recent weeks.

Why are we seeing so many orcas right now?

It’s mostly luck, said Black.

“We don’t get to see them all that often,” said Michael Pierson of the Oceanic Society, who was leading the boat tour that spotted the first group of orcas out near the Farallons. He’ll see orcas near San Francisco maybe two or three times per year, he said, all out by the Farallons.

Near Monterey, it happens more frequently, because of the topography of the ocean, and whale migration and hunting patterns.

Orcas tend to stay in deeper water. Different orca families range from Baja all the way up to Alaska, but Black said the 120 orcas around Monterey and the Bay Area tend to move constantly from Southern California to British Columbia. However, they’re all mostly swimming out at the edge of the continental shelf. A quick look at a coastal ocean depth map will show that the shallow water around San Francisco extends about 26 miles, past the Farallon Islands.

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But down by Monterey there’s something called the Monterey Canyon. It’s one of the deepest ocean canyons on the West Coast, starting near Moss Landing and extending out across Monterey Bay.

There are a few types of orcas. The transient orcas, which feed on mammals, tend to prey on seals, sea lions, sea otters, porpoises and also baby whales from other species. That means orcas hunt during sea lion and seal pupping season, which is happening right now at the Farallon Islands, said Pierson — and could explain some of the higher level of activity there.

They also hunt during humpback and gray whale migration season. The humpbacks and gray whales stay close to shore, in shallower water, to protect their babies. Where they need to cross the deep water channel, or get near the deep water in Monterey Bay, orcas can pick off their babies. That’s also happening right now. (Because of this, humpbacks really don’t like orcas; they have even been known to save other animals, like seals, from orcas.)


So far, whale experts don’t think there’s a larger trend happening, although climate change has certainly affected gray whales’ ability to eat enough in Alaska — warmer waters are making the shrimp they dine on rare, and that’s caused a recent increase in gray whales dying during the trip. But the best explanation for all the orca activity near shore lately is it’s just been a great hunting period.

“It looks like they just had a really good season while the gray whales head north,” said Beth Scrutton with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

When is whale-watching season?

“Whale-watching season on the California Coast is practically all year round, just different whales and different times of year,” said Scrutton. Mostly, we get humpback and gray whales. Sometimes, there are orcas or blue whales. “Recently, we’ve been seeing [whales] daily in Monterey,” she said.

Here are the best times to see the following whales:

Gray whales

Gray whales make a 12,000-mile round trip every year, summering in Alaska and then traveling to Mexico to winter off the coast of Baja, where they give birth in protected lagoons before heading back. They’re typically found around Monterey and the Bay Area from December to February, and then from April to May, although they’re not all on the same schedule.

Humpback whales

The humpback whales that winter in Mexico tend to spend their summers around here or in Oregon. Often, whole pods feed throughout the summer in Monterey Bay, and can be seen from April or May through October or November. Activity can be especially high in August and September, said Scrutton. “They’re the most acrobatic of whales we see,” she said.

Blue whales

The largest animal on earth, blue whales are also incredibly rare to spot. They tend to live in deeper waters, but feed off Monterey in the summer from June to October.

Orcas (aka killer whales)

While orcas are constantly on the move, ranging all up and down the West Coast, there is typically more activity around the Bay Area during the spring when gray whales are migrating, because that’s a good time to catch a calf for eating. However, because orcas constantly go where the food is, they don’t tend to spend more than a few days in one place — though they will travel and come back.

Where can I see whales in the Bay Area?

Unfortunately, it’s very rare to see orcas near San Francisco, even at this time of year, because of our shallow water. While humpback whales might occasionally come into the bay to feed, Black said she had never heard of orcas coming into the San Francisco Bay.

It’s also a math problem. There are, by Black’s estimate, about 120 killer whales that regularly frequent the waters off Monterey and the Bay Area. (One unique thing that likely contributed to recent sightings was a group of orcas that typically live in Canada traveling to become part of the large groups spotted here.) By comparison, there are about 5,000 humpback whales that make the migration. So your odds of seeing humpbacks are better.

Whale watching from shore

Your best bets from shore, said Pierson, are places with high vantage points, like near the lighthouses at Point Reyes or Point Bonita. Lands End, in the city, can be good, if you look out in the distance. Or go where deep water comes close to shore down at Point Lobos or near the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Still, it’s really just luck.

Whale watching from a boat

You’re much more likely to see whales if you head out to where they are.

Both Pierson and Black run whale-watching tours, with the Oceanic Society and Monterey Bay Whale Watch, respectively. In the Bay Area, the Oceanic Society goes out to the Farallons every Saturday and Sunday; right now, you can also see 300,000 to 500,000 birds during their nesting season. (San Francisco Whale Tours also takes boats out to the Farallons.)

How do the tours find whales? By looking for spouts or spray far off in the distance. Using smell on foggy days is another way to find them, said Pierson. It “smells like rotten broccoli and fish,” he said. “Once you smell it, you never forget the smell.”

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