Travel Blog

Best Ways to View Sea Life in Santa Cruz County

As part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, sea life is abundant in and around Santa Cruz County. Throughout the year it is possible to see sightings of common porpoises, humpback whales, sea lions, seals, and the ever-present sea otters. Seen from the deck of a sailboat, in the seat of a kayak, on a sixty-foot catamaran, or by land, there are a multitude of ways to watch marine life play in this watery world. Welcome aboard. 

Two people kyaking in Santa Cruz, whale breaching the surface in distance

Kayak

If you want to get up close and personal with marine wildlife slip into a kayak and let the current (and your arms) propel you through the calm waters of Monterey Bay or Elkhorn Slough.

Venture Quest has kayaks to rent and offers guided tours leaving from the Santa Cruz Wharf. Humpbacks have been spotted off the Santa Cruz Wharf as they follow the flow of nutrients which bring them to the California Coast and Monterey Bay during the summer.

Kayak Connection conveniently located by the Santa Cruz Harbor has sunset tours as well as a three-hour wildlife tour with the opportunity to view sea lions, harbor seals, and dolphins. In spring gray whales are migrating along the coast, in the fall encounter warmer weather and calm days ideal for being out on the water. Blue whales are more likely to be spotted offshore in summer and fall. Whether you want to rent your own kayak or join a tour, this is the perfect gateway to exploring marine life in the bay.

O'Neill Catamaran in the Monterey Bay off Santa Cruz coast with blue skies

Yacht

If you want to relax and seek marine life while sipping a glass of local wine, try gliding on the 65’ O’Neill catamaran which cruises past the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz Wharf, and surfers at Steamers Lane. Newly rebuilt to increase indoor and outdoor seating, the O’Neill catamaran boasts daytime and sunset sails. On their everyday tours, there is a chance to see juvenile humpbacks and Risso’s dolphins along with whatever else is currently making its home in the Monterey Bay. Those twenty-one and older can indulge in beer and wine sails showcasing local vintners and brewmasters.

Chardonnay Sailing boat in the Monterey Bay off Santa Cruz coast with blue skies

Running March-June,  Chardonnay Sailing Charters offers Whale Watching and Ecology Brunch Tours which are specially geared to searching for wildlife as this is when whales are migrating through the Monterey Bay. The naturalist on board can answer questions about marine life and explain what they see during the two-hour tour making this option perfect for nature aficionados. For a leisurely experience, which runs year-round, try their regular brunch tours with champagne and pastries from The Buttery. No matter the time of year, Chardonnay will rustle up wildlife whatever great white sharks at the cement ship in Aptos or sea otters in the kelp beds.

For a strictly wildlife and whale watching experience, book a charter with Stagnaros and Santa Cruz Whale Watching.

From Land

If whale-watching by seacraft is not your thing, the Santa Cruz coastline has pockets where you can spot a spout from land. Named for whaling captain, John Davenport, the town of Davenport is well known for being a place where whales can be spotted from the bluffs.

With a plethora of sea-facing benches on the well-traveled West Cliff path, you may be able to see spouts in the distance during annual whale migrations from December to February for the southern journey of grey whales, and mid-February to April for their northern journey. If you time it right, you may also see pods of dolphins at Manressa State Beach, and whales en route from your view on the patio of Palapas Restaurant.

Continued Learning

Want to learn more about marine life before or after your trip? The Seymor Marine Discovery Center offers a variety of learning experiences to deepen your understanding of marine science and ocean conservation. Don’t miss Ms. Blue, an 87-foot-long skeleton of a blue whale. 

Curious about wildlife? This free guide has all the tips and insights you need to spot wildlife throughout the year in Santa Cruz County.

Quick Reference

  • December-April: Gray Whales. Peak viewing is from mid-January through mid-March.
  • Summer and Fall: Blue Whales, Humpbacks (although in the past few years, Humpbacks are proving to be year-round in the Monterey Bay)
  • Year-Round: Orcas. The best time to view is April as they follow the migration pattern of Gray Whales.
  • Other marine animals you may spot: Blue Shark, Great White Sharks, Sun Fish, Common and Risso’s Dolphins, Sea Otters.

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