You can’t go through a winter in Southern California without somebody trying to get you to go whale watching.
From Northern California to the Santa Barbara Channel all the way down to the San Diego Bay, there are innumerable boat trips that hold the promise of seeing a breaching whale during its mating season.
But part of the problem is that a whale is a moving target. Yes, it's a large target, but you’ve got to be on the right side of your sea vessel at the exact right moment, otherwise you’ll miss it – and you'll be lucky just to catch sight of a bit of the leftover spray (or MAYBE a little spout).
Besides, there are so many other denizens of the sea to be spotted in our Southern California coastal areas! Why should whales get all the glory?
So, here are five great ocean and ocean-side dwellers to look out for while visiting our coastal lands… and the places where you'll be sure to find them, without interfering with their pupping, spawning, mating and other private business.
If you've seen a fin-footed marine mammal sunning itself on rocky shores, along sandy beaches, or perched on a buoy, you might've just called it a seal. But it's not quite as simple as that. There are the "true" seals of Southern California – including elephant seals and harbor seals, both of which are earless – and then their "eared" cousins, most likely sea lions (the brown ones that bark and "walk" on their flippers). They’re all part of the family of pinnipeds, and they’re probably the easiest to track down if you’re looking to explore the wildlife offerings of coastal Southern California. Of course there are the famous elephant seals of the Piedras Blancas rookery in San Simeon (near Hearst Castle). There are also about 200 harbor seals dwelling year-round in La Jolla just north of San Diego, where you might catch a glimpse of some newborn pups (usually born in February and March) at the South Casa Beach rookery (near Seal Rock), and adults all the way up to La Jolla Cove. And at the Harbor Seal Preserve in Carpinteria, there are 100 seals clearly visible from above at the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve. Finally, at White Point / Royal Palms Beach, you can witness volunteers from the Marine Mammal Care Center as they reintroduce rehabilitated "seals" of all sorts back into the wild. (And while you're there, keep your eyes open for the feral cats that have made the rocks their home.)
If you want to see hundreds – if not thousands – of "common" dolphins, you're going to have to get off the coast and get into the water on a boat. And while you may not catch sight of as many elusive whales as you’d like on your whale-watching cruise, you may get to see pods of dolphins so large they're impossible to miss. Island Packers in Ventura County has a good track record of marine mammal sightings on its wildlife viewing trips through the Santa Barbara Channel and around the Channel Islands – and its eagle-eyed, knowledgeable staff on board can tell you what you’re seeing. You've got a good chance of dolphin sightings with other charter boats that enter the open waters of the Pacific, like Oceanside Adventures out of San Diego County and Davey’s Locker out of Newport Beach.
3. Sea Otters
Since sea otters are considered endangered, you may have only seen them in captivity (like at the fantastic Aquarium of the Pacific) or starring in adorable viral videos on Facebook. But these little furry marine mammals can actually be found in the wild, if you know where to look. While they’re far more common in the Bay Area and Big Sur than along the Southern California coast, they've been spotted in record numbers this year in and around Morro Bay State Park (site of Morro Rock) and the Morro Bay State Marine Reserve and State Marine Recreational Management Area. They're now protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, so if you get up close to one, don't try to cuddle it – no matter how furry it is. (In fact, it was the fur trade that nearly eradicated the species in the 18th and 19th centuries.) They also can be found within the boundaries of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which is 1,685 square miles of protected, relatively isolated waters that small, non-commercial boats are allowed to enter.
You can find birds pretty much wherever you go in Southern California – from its urban environs to the mountains and even the desert. But bodies of water (including the greatest body of water of all, the Pacific Ocean) attract a certain critical mass of avian visitors – and not just seagulls. Whether you're at one of our beaches or out in the middle of the ocean, brown pelicans also abound. On Anacapa Island, you’ll also find lots of seabirds like brown boobies (especially in and around Cathedral Cove) and maybe even a blue-footed booby. Whether you're looking for loons, grebes, shearwaters, terns, jaegers, rhinoceros auklets or cormorants, keep your eyes peeled and bring a good set of binoculars or a long-lens camera – and try to go with some fellow birders who can help you identify what's flying overhead or bobbing in the water. And, if you're lucky, a snowy egret might even just land on your boat and pose for some photos for a while. You’ll have to land at one of the Channel Islands to see some of the rarer species of birds – like the island scrub-jay, a close relative of the mainland western scrub-jay. You can only find it on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands, which makes it the smallest range of any bird species in North America.
5. California Grunion
I hesitate to even include the grunion in this guide, because they can be the most difficult to catch sight of. But they’re a pretty big deal here in SoCal, especially during peak season (March through June), when you might find yourself trekking to a beach in the middle of the night to watch the small fish emerge from the sea and make their way up the sand to spawn. You can join the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro or the Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla for a guided grunion "run" on certain nights – though it's not certain that you’ll actually see any of those silver fish doing their sexy nightswimming swagger. Otherwise, you can research other sandy beaches that will be quieter and less crowded – where you’re more likely to see grunion, since they don’t like their mood to be wrecked – on Pepperdine University’s educational website dedicated to grunions.
Note: This article has been updated June 29, 2021 to reflect the latest available information.