Which Whales to Watch
Whales can be spotted off the shores of Point Reyes almost year-round! Many of the whales are here for only part of the year, so different seasons provide different whale watching opportunities. While the most commonly spotted whale at the Seashore is the gray whale during their winter and spring migration, there is the chance of seeing other whale and dolphin species throughout the year.
Summer or Fall: Humpback whales, Blue Whales, Fin Whales
Best Locations for Whale Watching
Since the tip of the Point Reyes peninsula sticks out 10 miles (16 km) into the Pacific Ocean, it gets visitors that much closer to areas where whales are swimming and migrating past—the next best thing to being on a boat! As a result, the best whale watching tends to be from higher coastal areas far out on the peninsula like the Point Reyes Lighthouse, or the end of the Chimney Rock trail, and the Tomales Point Trail. Being up high looking down on the water gives visitors the best vantage point for whale watching. Whales will often be visible with the naked eye, but binoculars or spotting scopes enhance the whale watching experience.
The Point Reyes Lighthouse.
At the westernmost end of the Point Reyes Headlands, the Lighthouse served mariners for 105 years & is now preserved for future generations.
View elephant seals. Visit the historic Point Reyes Lifeboat Station. Hike the Chimney Rock Trail.
Tomales Point, Pierce Point Ranch, & Elk
Visit the historic Pierce Point Ranch, see tule elk, and hike the Tomales Point Trail.
What to Look For
Spouting is the most common behavior viewed from land. This is where the whale is surfacing for a breath. Contrary to popular belief, they are not releasing water. The spout spray is their very warm breath meeting the cooler ocean air, similar to when humans’ breathe on a cold winter day. The warm breath condenses into water droplets and will be visible for just a few seconds. On windy days, whitecaps on the ocean's surface and spouts can be difficult to tell apart. Therefore, whale watching conditions are best when there is little to no wind.
Breaching is when a whale jumps, having most or all of its body above the water's surface at once! As their large bodies reenter the water, it creates a massive splash that can be visible for miles. All whales breach, but it is extremely common among humpback whales. One theory is that humpback whales breach to communicate far distances about hunting, mating, or potential threats.
Spy hopping is a behavior seen in whales and dolphins. This is when they poke their head above the water line to look around. This can be seen on migrations looking for landmarks to orient themselves or look for potential hazards around the surface. Depending on the species, this behavior can last for a few seconds up to several minutes. Spy hopping is similar to how humans tread water; the whale will maintain its height by flicking its tail, and balance using its fins. This behavior is most commonly seen in humpback whales and orcas.
Lunge Feeding is a technique used by most baleen whales. This hunting technique is when whales approach their prey from underneath, capturing the food while swimming upwards. This will result in the whale partially exiting the ocean, with a mouth full of food and water.
Other Marine Animals to See
The waters surrounding Point Reyes are protected within the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. These waters are one of the most diverse and productive in the world. This important marine ecosystem provides feeding grounds for many species of invertebrates, fish, sharks, birds, and mammals. Visitors may see common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and harbor porpoises. Also keep an eye out for harbor seals, sea lions, and elephant seals that live all or part of the year in Point Reyes.
Whale watching by boat
Our Outfitters and Tours page lists the businesses and organizations offering Whale Watching trips out of San Francisco Bay and Bodega Bay.
The Whale Trail
The Whale Trail is a series of sites along the Pacific coast where the public may view whales and other marine mammals from shore. The Whale Trail's mission is to inspire appreciation and stewardship of whales and our marine environment by establishing a network of viewing sites along the whales' trails through Puget Sound and the coastal waters of the Pacific.
Whale Sighting Links
Are you wondering whether any whales have been seen recently in the waters off Point Reyes? Or whether any whales may be heading our way? Check out the links below.
Whale Alert - West Coast
Whale Alert - West Coast was formed by The Office of the National Marine Sanctuaries, Conserve.IO, and Point Blue Conservation Science, working in coordination with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), to help reduce the number of ship collisions with whales. Conserve.IO developed the Whale Alert smart phone/tablet application providing a user-friendly way for just about anyone to report whale sightings on the west coast in real time. This app are a publicly available, so feel free to download the Whale Alert app and share your sightings of whales with the world. Numerous, accurate reports will hopefully help sailors avoid colliding with whales.
Last updated: August 19, 2023