Southern California Whale Watching
California is the birthplace of organized whale watching and the Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary offer one of the richest and most diverse locations to view marine mammals anywhere in the World.
More than 30 species of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions frequent the area, including the majestic blue whale, the acrobatic humpback whale, the barnacled gray whale, the powerful orca, the playful long-beaked common dolphin and the gregarious California sea lion.
Some species make their permanent home in the channel, while others migrate through our waters and still others come here to fatten up on the rich ocean bounty, making the whale watching aboard the Condor Express a rich and rewarding voyage. The imposing blue whales, the largest creatures to ever inhabit planet earth, are the undisputed stars of the show. The Santa Barbara Channel is consistently the most reliable and easily accessible location in the World to see this species. Humpback whales are a close second with their joyful surface displays and regular interactions with the Condor Express. Gray whales are the staple of the winter season during their epic migration between the Arctic and Baja California. We also encounter long-beaked common dolphins on most trips throughout the year usually in pods ranging from a few hundred to several thousand. Nearshore bottlenose dolphins (of Flipper fame) stay close to the coast and we often pass them at the entrance to the Santa Barbara Harbor. Transient orcas regularly come through the channel on their search from marine mammal prey where they always provide a special thrill. Another visual treat are the squid-eating Risso’s dolphins that look like pieces of modern art with their intricate patterns of scratches and scars.
There are many species that we encounter less frequently but on a regular basis, including fin whales (the second largest animal on earth), elusive minke whales, short-beaked common dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, sleek northern right whale dolphins and the super fast Dall’s porpoises. And of course there is plenty of other marine life out there: friendly California sea lions, shy harbor seals and giant elephant seals; dozens of species of sea birds; many species of fish like mola mola, basking sharks and blue sharks, as well as the mysterious jellyfish.
The Santa Barbara Channel sits right between two oceanic zones, with the cold California current bringing a northern influence and the warm Davidson Countercurrent providing a tropical element. The key to the incredible biodiversity of the area is the upwelling created by the unique undersea topography and the prevailing winds, which drives a rich food chain from microscopic plankton to apex predators.
We are careful not to disturb any animals on our excursions, but many of the whales, dolphins and porpoises seem to be curious or playful and often approach the Condor Express. Dolphins and porpoises are drawn to the moving boat to “bow ride,” a behavior where they are pushed through the water by the vessel’s bow pressure. Humpback whales are known for their friendly interactions with humans on the water, and they will often touch the hull. Often, blue whales, gray whales, minke whales and orcas also make very close approaches deliberately.
The trips are narrated by our experienced and knowledgeable captains and we also have naturalists from the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps aboard to answer your questions and to collect scientific data that is shared with researchers.