Best whale watching in the USA: San Juan Islands, Washington
Monika Wieland Shields / Shutterstock

When and Where to Go Whale Watching in the USA: Four Seasons of Cetaceans

Whale watching can result in rewarding glimpses of majestic marine mammals leaping into the air (aka breaching) or spouting geysers of mist or gracefully flapping their enormous flukes (aka tails). Or, if your timing is bad, a cetacean stakeout can be a frustrating couple of hours spent staring at acres of ocean unbroken by a single fin. 

A lot depends on where you go and when you go. In the coastal waters of the United States, there are stretches of sea where pods take up more-or-less permanent residence, but in many other areas migratory whales pass through only during certain parts of the year.   

To help you plan whale-centric adventures from land and sea, we’ve gathered the best spots for sightings on both coasts and grouped them according to when on the calendar whales are most likely to be around.

Let’s start, though, with the places where whale watching can be a year-round pursuit.

Pictured above: a breaching orca in the San Juan Islands of Washington State

 
Best whale-watching in USA: Breaching humpback whale in Monterey Bay, California
Chase Dekker / Shutterstock
Year-Round: California

Where to go: Monterey Bay
When to go: year-round
What you’ll see: humpbacks, blue whales
Where to watch from land: any lookout along the Big Sur coast or the bike-friendly Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail
Where to catch a boat tour: Monterey

Where to go: Southern California
When to go: year-round
What you’ll see: gray whales (December–April), the occasional orca (especially in December and January), blue whales (May–October), minkes (August–October)
Where to watch from land: Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, Point Dume promontory in Malibu, Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego
Where to catch a boat tour: Santa Barbara (to tour the Channel Islands), Newport Beach, San Diego

Pictured above: a breaching humpback in Monterey Bay

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Best whale-watching in USA: Depoe Bay, Oregon
Kelly vanDellen / Shutterstock
Year-Round: Beyond California

Where to go: Oregon Coast
When to go: year-round
What you’ll see: migrating gray whales (December and January); resident gray whales, humpbacks, blue whales (especially prevalent June–October)
Where to watch from land or catch a boat tour: Depoe Bay (pictured above), a base for charters and the state-run Whale Watching Center

Where to go: Jersey Shore
When to go: year-round
What you’ll see: resident humpbacks and finbacks
Where to catch a boat tour: Cape May

Best whale watching in USA: Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska
National Park Service / Kaitlin Thoresen
Spring and Summer: West Coast

Where to go: Southern Alaska
When to go: April–October
What you’ll see: gray whales, orcas, humpbacks
Where to catch a boat tour: Kodiak, Juneau, Gustavus (for Glacier Bay National Park), Seward (for Kenai Fjords National Park, pictured above)

Where to go: San Juan Islands, Washington State
When to go: May–September
What you’ll see: orcas, humpbacks, minkes, gray whales
Where to watch from landLime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island
Where to catch a boat tour: Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island

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Best whale watching in USA: Whale-watching cruise near Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism / Kim Hojackni
Spring and Summer: East Coast

Where to go: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
When to go: May–October
What you’ll see: finbacks, humpbacks, right whales; sightings of marine mammals are virtually guaranteed in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary between Cape Ann and Cape Cod
Where to catch a boat tour: Provincetown, the former locus of New England commercial whaling 

Where to go: Maine Coast
When to go: June–August
What you’ll see: humpbacks, minkes, finbacks
Where to watch from land: Acadia National Park
Where to catch a boat tour: Acadia's gateway town, Bar Harbor

Where to go: Long Island, New York
When to go: July–September
What you’ll see: sperm whales, blue whales, finbacks, humpbacks, right whales
Where to catch a boat tour: Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn or Montauk on the eastern tip of Long Island

Pictured above: a whale-watching cruise near Cape Cod

Best whale watching in the USA: humpback whales in Hawaii
J. Moore/NOAA
Fall and Winter: West Coast

Where to go: San Francisco Bay Area
When to go: December–February
What you’ll see: gray whales, humpbacks, blue whales (more common in Northern California in summer)
Where to watch from land: Point Reyes National Seashore, the cliffs over the beaches in Half Moon Bay, or any other headland jutting into the Pacific
Where to catch a boat tour: San Francisco, Half Moon Bay

Where to go: Maui, Hawaii
When to go: January–April
What you’ll see: humpbacks—sometimes with calves as in the picture above, taken at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Where to watch from land: McGregor Point south of Lahaina, Olowalu Reef along the Honoapiilani Highway, and the top of Puu Olai hill at Makena State Park
Where to catch a boat tour: Kihei’s nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation; there are also whale-focused sea kaying tours and plenty of options on Oahu and the Big Island, too

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Best whale-watching in the USA: Flagler Beach, Florida
Hernanv / Shutterstock
Fall and Winter: East Coast and Caribbean

Where to go: Northeastern Florida
When to go: December–March
What you’ll see (if you’re lucky): endangered right whales
Where to watch from land: between Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral, particularly on piers in Daytona Beach and nearby Flagler Beach (pictured above); sightings are too unreliable to support boat excursions

Where to go: Virginia Coast
When to go: January–February
What you’ll see: humpbacks and the occasional finback
Where to catch a boat tour: Virginia Beach, where experts from the Virginia Aquarium lead educational two-hour trips  

Where to go: Puerto Rico
When to go: February
What you’ll see: humpbacks
Where to watch from land or catch a boat tour: Rincón, on the island's west coast, where whale-watching day trips are available and humpbacks can sometimes be spotted from Punta Higuero Lighthouse 

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