Get up Close to Marine Mammals in the San Francisco Bay Area

Where to see sea lions, otters, dolphins, whales and more in the Bay Area

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.

California sea lions on Pier 39
California sea lions on Pier 39 (Courtesy Sea Lion Center)

San Francisco

January is peak viewing 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.

Marine Mammal Center
Marine Mammal Center (©Ingrid Overgard)

North 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.

Elephant seals
Elephant seals (Courtesy California State Parks)

South Bay

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.

Common dolphin breaching
Common dolphin breaching (Courtesy Sanctuary Cruises)

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.