whale watching santa barbara

A mini-guide to amazing Santa Barbara whale watching

When I moved to Santa Barbara, I knew about the sunny days, the lovely beaches, and the temperate weather. What I didn’t know was how amazing Santa Barbara whale watching was. After two whale-watching trips in these nutrient-rich waters, this place is the real deal. So, Santa Barbara whale-watching is the real deal for those looking to get out on the water!

Enjoy the photos below and learn a little about how to plan a Santa Barbara whale-watching trip to the Santa Barbara channel!

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Everything You Need to Know About Santa Barbara Whale Watching

I have set out with Condor Express multiple times for a Santa Barbara whale-watching tour. The team here runs an incredible experience – and one I highly recommend. Their tours are 4.5 hours long for most of the year and will take you wherever there are whales.

On my first Santa Barbara whale-watching trip, we covered a lot of distance, searching for whales. Instead, we saw a few flukes – including one faraway breachand enjoyed the sunny day.

The second time, however, in the fog, we found five humpbacks hanging out by the boat. This one was amazing. On this Santa Barbara whale-watching trip, we stayed in one place for nearly 45 minutes as the whales swam from side to side, saying hello.

In addition to the whales, dolphins and sea lions made plenty of appearances as they enjoyed copious amounts of fresh food in the region. Whenever I’m out on the water whale-watching, I fall increasingly in love with wildlife photography. Something about the anticipation and uncertainty of looking for these beautiful creatures sucks me in.

As opposed to doing landscape photography where you know the mountain will be there – even if it’s not ideal conditions – there’s no certainty you will ever see wildlife. This makes the reward for visiting them exponentially better.

santa barbara whale watching

Related: 16 things to do in Santa Barbara

Best Time to See Whales in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara whale-watching year-round makes it one of the best places to do it. However, summer is the best time as humpback whales are migrating north, and on some days, the tour will see 10-15 whales.

It’s truly incredible the amount of wildlife that calls the Santa Barbara Channel home. Below are estimates of what you might see in each season.


  • Gray Whales
  • Orcas
  • Dolphins


  • Gray Whales
  • Humpback Whales
  • Dolphins
  • Orcas


  • Humpback Whales
  • Blue and Fin Whales
  • Dolphins


  • Humpback Whales
  • Blue and Fin Whales
  • Dolphins

Related: Plan your trip to the Channel Islands National Park

Tour types offered

From February to May, they run 2.5-hour trips looking for grey whales. Then, the rest of the year, they run their 4.5-hour trips, which span far and wide searching for all whales!

Related: Camping on the Channel Islands

What Kinds of Whales are in the Santa Barbara Channel

They get almost all the whales in the world in this area. It’s magical Santa Barbara whale-watching.

Pacific Gray Whales

You’ll see Gray Whales as they migrate from Alaska to the Baja of California early in the season. Although they are less active and exciting, it is still a great experience to see them.

Blue and Humpback Whales

Both Blue Whales and Humpbacks call this area home. However, Humpbacks are much more prevalent on these tours and are more numerous in quantity. So if you see a Blue Whale, it’s your lucky day!

Furthermore, humpbacks are the ones that breach more often and come up to the boat to say hi. These are extraordinary animals and a favorite of mine while Santa Barbara whale-watching.

Orcas Killer Whales

These are more rare, but Orcas head as far south as Santa Barbara while looking for food. So if you see them here, it’s a treasured sight.

Fin Whales

I’ve never seen a Fin Whale in SB, but they migrate through.

What to Pack and Wear for Whale-Watching

It can get chilly out on the water, especially when the boat is moving fast and in cloudy conditions. However, it shouldn’t be too chilly when the boat stops near whales, especially from spring through fall.

  • Hat and Sunglasses
  • Sunblock
  • Jacket
  • Pants/Shorts
  • Binoculars
  • Water and a snack
santa barbara whale watching

Santa Barbara Whale-Watching Trips

  • Bring binoculars
  • If you’re bringing a camera, bring a telephoto lens of at least 200mm. 400 is probably even better. But make sure to keep a wider-angle lens on hand, just in case the whales come up to the boat, as they did here.
  • Make sure your hat is secured to your head. Once on the water, the wind whips, and hats always go overboard. The Santa Barbara Channel doesn’t need any more pollution.
  • Additionally, bring sunblock for a sunny day, but also a long-sleeved shirt. Temperatures are cooler over the open ocean – especially when the boat is zooming along.

Related: Wildlife photography tips

Favorite Photos from My Santa Barbara Whale-Watching Tours

santa barbara whale watching
santa barbara whale watching
santa barbara whale watching
santa barbara whale watching
Santa Barbara Whale Watching
Santa Barbara Whale Watching

Thanks to Condor Express for creating a wonderful and safe whale-watching environment in the Santa Barbara Channel.

FAQs about Santa Barbara whale-watching

What time is the best for whale watching?

Lucky for Santa Barbara, they have whales and tours almost year round as the nutrient-rich waters attract humpbacks, grey and blue whales, thousands of dolphins, and even Orcas.

However, the summer months are usually the best when humpback whales migrate north from the Baja and/or Hawaii.

What is the best whale watching in Santa Barbara?

I honestly believe Condor Express is the best tour you can take. Their Santa Barbara whale-watching excursion is top-notch, and you will almost surely see Pacific Grey Whales, Blue Whales, and tons of Humpback Whales.

Can I expect to see a whale in Santa Barbara?

There’s no guarantee, but you’ll likely see a whale. Now, you can’t expect them to get as close as I saw them – as that was an anomaly – but seeing them in the open ocean is still stunning.

Wrapping up Santa Barbara Whale-Watching

I strongly recommend whale-watching in Santa Barbara while you’re in town. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and I know you will have the greatest of times.

The Condor Express runs an amazing ship, and make sure to tell them @AlecOutside says hi!

Until next time, adventurers, stay safe.

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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside