Marine Mam­mal Close-ups

Where to spot whales, sea lions, ot­ters and more in the Bay Area.

Where San Francisco - - Contents - BY ZACHARY CLARK

You likely al­ready know about the sea lions of Pier 39, but they’re just one of many marine mam­mals you can spot in the San Fran­cisco Bay and along the Pa­cific Coast. This month, count­less gray whales pass through the Bay Area on their an­nual mi­gra­tion south, and ele­phant seals re­turn here to breed. Seals, dol­phins and ot­ters are year-round reg­u­lars in the Bay Area, and if you’re lucky you might also see or­cas and hump­backs this time of year. Read on for a look at the best spots to catch the ac­tion.


Jan­uary is peak view­ing time for gray whales, and a cruise out of Pier 39 al­most guar­an­tees you a sight­ing. SF Bay Whale Watch­ing and San Fran­cisco Whale Tours are just two com­pa­nies of­fer­ing trips to the Far­ral­lon Is­lands, a gath­er­ing and feed­ing hub for mi­grat­ing whales about 27 miles off the coast. And it’s not un­com­mon for grays to make a brief de­tour into the bay. A stroll along the Golden Gate Bridge or Fort Point at the base of the bridge pro­vides the best views of any passersby, which may also in­clude dol­phins, har­bor por­poises and seals.

Of course Cal­i­for­nia sea lions are al­most al­ways hauled out on the docks of Pier 39, sun­bathing or fight­ing over the per­fect spot. If you want to learn more about these col­or­ful crea­tures, Pier 39 is also home to the Sea Lion Cen­ter, which fea­tures in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibits and reg­u­lar pre­sen­ta­tions by lo­cal nat­u­ral­ists. While you’re on Pier 39, don’t miss the Aquar­ium of the Bay, where you’ll find river ot­ters, the se­v­engill shark and other res­i­dents of the San Fran­cisco Bay.


Across the bay in the Marin Head­lands, the Marine Mam­mal Cen­ter is a hos­pi­tal and ed­u­ca­tion fa­cil­ity that res­cues and re­ha­bil­i­tates sick or in­jured marine mam­mals, pri­mar­ily ele­phant seals, har­bor seals and Cal­i­for­nia

sea lions. Vis­i­tors can get up close with the pa­tients, watch them feed and learn about the cen­ter’s ef­forts to pre­serve them.

Fur­ther north, Point Reyes penin­sula ex­tends 10 miles into the Pa­cific Ocean, of­fer­ing some of the best views from land of mi­grat­ing whales. Chim­ney Rock and the light­house are the two main van­tage points, and in Jan­uary, more than 1,000 whales can swim by the penin­sula each day. Win­ter months also bring north­ern ele­phant seals to Point Reyes, and you can see what the lo­cal colony is up to at Ele­phant Seal Over­look, just a short walk from Chim­ney Rock.

About an hour north of Point Reyes, Bodega Bay Head is an­other pop­u­lar spot for whale watch­ing. Vol­un­teer do­cents staff the area on week­ends with spot­ting scopes and an­swers to all your whale ques­tions, and sev­eral boat tours launch from the area as well.


About an hour south of San Fran­cisco down High­way 1, Half Moon Bay is the launch­ing point for gray whale watch­ing trips with the Oceanic So­ci­ety. Led by an ex­pert nat­u­ral­ist, these week­end tours fol­low gray whale mi­gra­tion path­ways about 1-12 miles off­shore, and you’ll see plenty of other wildlife on the way. As for hump­back whales, the main pop­u­la­tion is well on its way to Hawaii and Mexico by Jan­uary, but there’s a chance you’ll see one or two of these ocean giants, fa­mous for their ma­jes­tic breach and pow­er­ful tail slap.

Fur­ther south, Año Nuevo state park is one of the largest main­land breed­ing colonies in the world for the north­ern ele­phant seal. Up to 10,000 of them pack the beaches of Año Nuevo for breed­ing sea­son, which be­gins in De­cem­ber when the first males ar­rive. Weigh­ing up to two and a half tons, these mas­sive bulls com­pete for dom­i­nance in a vi­o­lent spec­ta­cle that of­ten leaves them both blood­ied. To view the seals and their bizarre mat­ing rit­u­als this month, you’ll need to re­serve a guided tour.

If you con­tinue south for an­other hour, Mon­terey is one of the best places in the world to see marine wildlife. The fa­mous Mon­terey Bay Aquar­ium is cer­tainly worth a visit, but you can see many of the aquar­ium’s res­i­dents in the wild just min­utes away.

The quiet fish­ing town of Moss Land­ing is one such place. Elkhorn Slough at Moss Land­ing is home to the largest com­mu­nity of south­ern sea ot­ters on the West Coast. Rent a kayak from Kayak Con­nec­tion, and there’s a good chance a cu­ri­ous ot­ter will fol­low you or even try hop­ping aboard. Har­bor seals and Cal­i­for­nia sea lions also fre­quent the seven-mile slough and es­tu­ary.

Based in Moss Land­ing, Sanc­tu­ary Cruises of­fers whale-watch­ing tours aboard a biodiesel boat staffed with marine bi­ol­o­gists. Like all Bay Area-based tours, grays are the main at­trac­tion this month, with oc­ca­sional orca sight­ings as well. Com­mon dol­phins are es­pe­cially abun­dant this time of year, and you’ll likely see pods of them swim­ming along with the boat. Be­yond the sea­sonal vis­i­tors, these wa­ters are pop­u­lar year-round with Risso’s dol­phins, seals, ot­ters and at times, bask­ing sharks and minke whales.

Pier 39

Marine Mam­mal Cen­ter

Aquar­ium by the Bay

Ele­phant Seals at Año Nuevo

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