Forget the Apple ‘spaceship’ and Salesforce tower — San Francisco’s most eye-popping wonder is the army of giant whales that navigate its waters, and it’s surprisingly easy to get up close

Whale watching may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about things to do in Northern California.

Touring San Francisco? Definitely. Visiting wine country? Sure. Seeing Apple’s new Spaceship headquarters? Maybe, if you’re a tech geek.

But it turns out the area is also a splendid place to catch sight of the leviathans of the seas. Every year, several species, from orcas on up to the biggest of them all, blue whales, make their way down the California coast on the way from Alaska to Mexico and then back again. Just which whales you’ll see depends on the time of the year.

Boats that offer whale watching tours leave out of San Francisco and Half Moon Bay, which is about 25 miles south of the City. You can also get whale watching tours on boats that leave from points along Monterey Bay, which is south of San Jose.

In December, I went on whale watching tour with my family on a boat that left out of Moss Landing, which is about an hour south of San Jose on Monterey Bay. We caught sight of more than 10 humpback whales, including three that we’re swimming together. At one point, one of the humpbacks surfaced within 50 yards of our boat. It was an amazing experience.

But there was more to see than just humpbacks. Here’s more about our unforgettable whale-watching adventure and everything you need to know to have your own expedition:

Whale watching tours leave out of three primary areas in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.

You can leave on a whale watching tour from any of the points marked on this map. Google Maps

Boat tours leave from San Francisco; Half Moon Bay, which is just south of San Francisco; and from harbours along Monterey Bay, which is south of San Jose.

Our tour left from Moss Landing, which is about an hour south of San Jose.


Moss Landing Harbour is picturesque and mostly filled with fishing boats.


But it’s used for more than just that. Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is located at the harbour and has a research vessel docked there. The ship carries a submersible the institute uses to explore the ocean.

At least three different companies offer whale-watching tours out of Moss Landing.

Sanctuary Cruises’ boat. Sanctuary is among the companies offering whale-watching tours that depart from Moss Landing. Troy Wolverton/Business Insider

We went on a tour offered by Sanctuary Cruises. Depending on the season, Sanctuary offers tours as frequently as a few days a week to as often as four a day.

The company offers two basic options: a two-to-three hour trip that costs $US45 a person and a three-to-four hour trip that costs $US55 for adults and $US45 for kids. We went on the latter.

Our boat was captained by Mike Sack.


Sack co-owns Sanctuary Cruises and has decades of experience piloting boats. He occasionally blogs about his expeditions and the whales and other creatures he encounters on them.

Chase Dekker served as our on-board naturalist.


Dekker, who has degrees in biology and zoology, helped us identify the whales and other animals we saw on our cruise. In his hand, he’s holding a piece of baleen, which toothless whales use to strain out from ocean water the small animals such as krill that serve as their food.

To see the whales, we had to sail four miles out into Monterey Bay.


The views were lovely.

The water can be kind of choppy, but our tour offered devices that were supposed to ward off seasickness.


The wrist-worn gadgets, which Sanctuary rented for $US7 a piece, emit electric pulses. You can modulate the intensity of the pulses.

I rented one of the devices, because I hadn’t been on a boat in the ocean in years. But because I could see land at all times during our tour, I realised I didn’t really need it. My particular device shut off automatically after about 30 minutes, and I didn’t feel a need to turn it back on.

A little more than an hour after our boat left its dock, we started seeing whales.


Nearly all of the whales we saw were humpbacks like this one, which was something of a surprise, because humpbacks aren’t usually seen in Monterey Bay during the winter months.

We saw more than 10 humpbacks on our trip.


That included this pair, which was swimming together.

Some of the whales got really close!


Like this one, which easily got within 50 yards of our boat.

Monterey Bay has abundant sea life, which helps to attract whales.


Not to mention birds, sea lions, and other predators.

This one swam beside us as we headed to an area that was attracting the attention of birds and other whales.

In one of the feeding zones, we saw three whales surface in the same area at about the same time.

It was amazing to see the whales, but it was also fun to just hear them surface and blow air out their blowholes.

While whales are the big draw, they aren’t the only sea life you can see in Monterey Bay or at the harbour.


We saw lots of these jellyfish swimming just below the surface of the water, for example.

This photo gives you a sense of just how many there were.


But there were other creatures to see too, such as these sea lions, which were lounging on a pier in the harbour.


More sea lions were hanging out on and swimming around a buoy near the harbour’s entrance.


These sea otters were swimming among the boats.


There are so many sea otters around, Moss Landing has made a special crossing for them on the road into the harbour.


But whales were the reason we headed to Monterey Bay — and they were well worth the trip.