The Best Time To Go Whale Watching in Monterey Bay, California

{The Best Time To Go Whale Watching}

Short answer: Summer
More nuanced answer: Keep reading


I am going to assume that when people think about going whale watching, they want to see whales jump out of the water (breach) and see as many as possible. Some people care about seeing a variety of species while others don’t.

The fact is there’s whale activity at Moss Landing, year round. What I’m writing about today is the BEST time to go.


This reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago with some friends who asked me for advice about going on an African safari. I think I got too technical…ok ok, fine I admit it, I know I got too technical because the first thing I asked was, “what animals do you want to see rhinos, wild dogs, crocs etc.?” And they just looked at me like deer in the headlights.

So for those looking for a quick, dirty answer: summer. For those that are interested in understanding why summer vs. any other time, read on.


The key variables are:

  • whale species
  • migration direction

gray-whale-body-moss-landing-california

{Gray Whale Watching Moss Landing, Monterey Bay}

Gray Whales migrate south towards warmer water in Baja, California in the winter and come back north in the spring. During the southbound migration females are pregnant. Not sure about you, but I can’t imagine a pregnant female carrying a 20ft., 1 tonne calve and breaching a whole lot! Thus the the northbound migration tends to be more social and leisurely as the females have given birth! They’re lighter and you see a lot more breaching and mating.

Take-away: more breaching during March-April during the northbound migration

{Monthly Breakdown of Gray Whale Movement}

Here’s a month-by-month breakdown of where the gray whales are. These are GENERALIZATIONS. The fact is it’s nature, and things  change, things happen. For example the naturalist on our trip yesterday said that a couple weeks ago they got a flood of krill in the canyon, which attracted a lot more humpbacks and grays than normal for that time of year.

Yesterday the only whale we saw was 1 juvenile humpback. Whereas last time I went to Moss Landing, in June 2017, we saw 6 humpbacks.

October-November: Starting in October, pregnant females start their journey for Baja, California. Additionally males seeking mates also follow the migration pattern. That’s a good time to see them as they make their way South.

December-February: While humpbacks can be seen year-round at Moss Landing, there will be much fewer in December-February as the majority have reached Baja, California and will stay there until the newborns are born and ready to make the journey north.

Thus many of the humpbacks you will see during December to February are likely juveniles (just as we saw one yesterday) that haven’t reached sexual maturity. These smaller giants, enjoy less competition for abundant krill in the Moss Landing canyon, which at its deepest point, is 2x as deep as the Grand Canyon!

February-March: Males and females without calves start their journey north again, while the new mothers stay at the lagoons of Baja, taking care of their young until they are ready to start heading back. The total journey takes 2-3 months.

Late March-April: the majority of new moms start the journey north, with their calves. April and May are great times to see these beauties in Moss Landing in particular, as the mothers hug the shore and shallow water to protect their calves.

May: the “straggler” moms start their journey north with their young.

Summer: some populations of gray whales delay traveling to the arctic and hang out in the Bay for the summer.

{Humpbacks}

April thru November: Hundreds of humpbacks are considered “residents” at Moss Landing as they enjoy the abundance of krill. There are always some humpbacks in the area. However, the majority of them spend the winter in the warmer waters off the Mexican coast.

whale-tail-moss-landing-humpback

{Orcas}

March-May: The gray whale migration starts in late February. March thru May are considered peak time. Wherever the grays are, that’s where the orcas will be. Our naturalist today did say that they spot orcas about one day per month throughout the year, on average. Pretty low considering they do these trips everyday.  So for your best chances to see orcas – March thru May.

{Blue Whales}

Spring-Summer: Winds from the northeast blow surface ocean water towards the coast, allowing the oxygen and nutrient-rich colder water underneath to swell up and that is like a buffet from heaven for blue whales.

Minke and fin whales have also been cited in Monterey Bay but rarely.


So…for those that stuck around to read all of this, when you consider good times to maximize your chances to see all the various species: gray, humpback, and blue whales all overlap during summer. And you might get lucky with orcas.

{Recommendation}

If you live in the San Francisco, Bay area, or visit often, I suggest following Sea Goddess, Princess Monterey Whale Watching, Monterey Bay Whale Watch’s social media accounts. They post updates frequently. So if there’s an uptick in activity or something out of the ordinary, you can stay on top of it.

{About Moss Landing}

Moss Landing is one of the best places in the world to see whales. It’s what is called a submarine canyon. The waters are full of krill, anchovies and other food and nutrients that baleen whales (gray, blue and humpbacks) love! It’s a brilliant location for whale watching because this deep sea canyon is so close to shore, so getting to an area with lots of whale activity doesn’t take long! There are many companies that operate whale watching tours and sometimes spot whales within ten minutes!

There’s a ton of other marine and animal life as well! We saw an abundance of birds, sea lions, sea otters, and in the summer thousands and thousands of jelly fish.

jelly-fish-pacific-ocean-moss-landing
In the summer, we saw thousands and thousands of jellyfish!
sea-otter-looking-contemplative-moss-landing-california
The sea otters and sea lions are abundant at Moss Landing and fun to spot!
Humpback-hump back-Monterey-Bay-.JPG
The humped back, that gives these whales their namesake.
Monterey-Bay-sea-bird.JPG
In addition to whales, there are a number of seabirds in the area.

Moss-Landing-Monterey-Bay-sign.JPGBirds-Monterey-Bay.JPGSea-otter-Monterey-bay.JPG

Moss-Landing-wave-crash.JPG
In the summer especially we saw surfers, fishers and people enjoying the water.

{What To Wear For Whale Watching}

I went yesterday, in late January for the 9:30am tour and it was COLD. I wore jeans, sneakers, long sleeve sweater blouse,a North Face jacket, a baseball cap, gloves, and a scarf and I was still chilly. Everyone else on the boat was similarly dressed too.

I also went whale watching at Moss Landing in June of last year, for the later afternoon, 2:30pm tour and wore almost the same outfit sans the scarf. And even during the summer was so glad I bundled up! With the wind factor it’s so much colder on the water. And once we were back on land, I just shed some layers.

The keys are:

  • comfortable clothes
  • warm clothes
  • flat shoes. The boat is rocky and anytime I wasn’t standing I had to have one hand holding onto the rail. Today was the water was particularly rocky at times with big swells. You do not want to be in any type of heels or platforms.
  • don’t forget sunglasses!

{What To Take With You To Go Whale Watching}

  • patience
  • zoom lens

I took my 50-250mm lens and was so glad I did!

{Parking at Moss Landing}

There’s a paid parking lot that costs $10 per car. Or just on the other side of the bridge and a 5-minute walk from the dock, there’s a free parking lot as well as street parking.


{Conclusion}

Throughout the year whales can be found at Moss Landing. In general, the summer is a great time to see whale activity. Humpbacks are most commonly seen as they are considered “residents” of the bay.

I hope this breakdown by whale species and time of year helps you plan your trip or even better, trip(s), to see these incredible creatures! The “best times” above are generalizations based on vast research conducted by whale watching companies, marine biologists and researchers, over decades. However it’s nature and there are flukes, just like the orca hunting activity last year as well as the flood of krill in November 2017 that attracted an unprecedented number of blue whales.

If you really want to stay on top of whale activity, follow some of the tour companies’  social media as they post regular updates.

Happy travels and cheers to adding more stamps in your PassportPages!

{About Samta}

When I’m not traveling and/or adventuring (and even when I am), I operate my tech startup, ShaadiShop. ShaadiShop is a marketplace for Indian-friendly wedding venues in California.

During undergrad I decided to study abroad which triggered my travel passion. I lived in Adelaide, Australia for a year and after that, for the next 10 years I spent 1-2 months each year, traveling to various destinations around the globe, on my own while I managed my direct marketing company.

I think traveling solo, prepared me to become an entrepreneur – journeying into new experiences, figuring it out as you go, self-reliance, facing your fears head on, trying new things, and so much more!

Then I decided to get a Masters in Business Administration, and I met my husband. Now we travel around the globe together and often. I love backpacks, vegetarian and vegan cooking and of course planning our next trip. I’m also kinda addicted to blueberries. =p

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Samta, Founder, PassportPages

{About PassportPages}

I created the PassportPages travel blog, to provide nuanced, detailed travel advice, tips, and hacks for traveling all over the world — from a unique and different perspective than the other popular travel blogs. There aren’t as many travel blogs geared towards:

  • nuanced, detailed travel tips and advice
  • vegetarians/vegan travelers
  • ethnic Americans, Canadians, and others
  • petite women

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