Marvel at Marine Mammals
On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons. ~Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
There is something magical about sighting a pod of playful dolphins, a congregation of seals or sea lions, a majestic whale or a graceful manatee! If you want to view marine mammals, first learn all about your ocean and then learn more about the variety of marine mammal species (which include walruses and polar bears), learn more about cetacean (whale and dolphin) behavior that you might see from shore and how to be Dolphin SMART. Learn more about ocean etiquette and how to interact responsibly with whales in our videos Watch Out for Spouts and Whale Sense.
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Kenai Fjords National Park
Homer or Seward
Abundant, unique and charismatic species make wildlife watching on Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge a joy. Spread out along Alaska’s 47,300 miles of coastline—the refuge stretches from Cape Lisburne on the Chukchi Sea to the tip of the Aleutian Islands in the west, from Forrester Island in the south to the Alaska Panhandle region in the east. The sheer span of this refuge is difficult to grasp. No matter where you start you’ll need a tour boat, a ferry, an aircraft or a cruise ship to get out into the refuge. Most visitors start from Seward or Homer (hint: en route to Homer you’ll pass through Kenai National Wildlife Refuge; check out our Spotlight Article.)
In Homer, you’ll find the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center shared with the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Charter and tour boats leave daily from the Homer Spit. If you start from Seward, you’ll find daily boat tours into the refuge and also into Kenai Fjords National Park, where you can get up close to active glaciers.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Cetaceans, including humpback and gray whales, harbor and Dall's porpoises and killer whales, occur commonly in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve’s waters. Humpbacks spend the summer foraging in the fjords, gray whales stay to the outer coast during spring and fall migration, Dall's porpoises stay in the open waters, harbor porpoises and Steller sea lions favor more sheltered waters, killer whales swim through in all seasons, and sea otters thrive throughout the park. Most visitors experience Glacier Bay by kayak, charter boat, tour vessels and even cruise ships. Check the Glacier Bay by Boat page for more information.
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Getting to Izembek National Wildlife Refuge may be logistically challenging, and it is worth the effort! You can fly via commercial aircraft from Anchorage to Cold Bay or by ferry via the Alaska Marine Highway. Once in the ‘outpost’ of Cold Bay, primitive roads allow access to Cold Bay itself, Russell Creek or Izembek lagoon. Unique in its own right, the Izembek lagoon is thirty miles long and 5-miles wide and, along with Izembek State Game Refuge, earned a Wetlands of International Importance designation due to its extraordinary abundance and diversity of migratory birds. Harbor seals and sea otters frequent the waters and congregate in rookeries along sand and rock beaches. You might also see a gray, orca, and minke whales migrating along the coastline.
Cabrillo National Monument
During winter, the Pacific gray whales pass by the western overlooks of Cabrillo National Monument as they swim south from the Arctic feeding grounds to the bays of Baja California, where they mate and nurse their young. Mid-January is the peak of the migration, but the Grays are visible from mid-to late December through March.
The heights around the park's Whale Overlook and Old Point Loma Lighthouse offer the best viewing. Stop at the visitor center to view the film, First Breath: Gray Whales, join a ranger program, get whale watching tips or just borrow a set of binoculars!
California Coastal National Monument
Trinidad and Rancho Palos Verdes
California Coastal National Monument offers visitors the chance to see California gray whales, California sea lions and harbor seals. The primary viewing season for marine mammals is winter through early spring, but you can see them year-round. Two great places to see California gray whales are Trinidad Head or Pointe Vicente. At Trinidad Head, the loop trail around the head makes a great whale-watching hike in season and offers the best overall views of the coastline and nearby rocks. From the south part of the trail, sea lions and seals are most often seen on the rocks. Two trails to Old Home Beach offers quiet strolls out of the wind and a close-up view of the Memorial Lighthouse. Download the California Coastal National Monument Trinidad Gateway brochure for more details.
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Channel Islands National Park
Santa Barbara and Ventura
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is one of the most important feeding grounds in the world for the endangered blue and humpback whales, who travel from their breeding areas in Mexico and Central America to feed on the abundant krill and fish that school in the nutrient-rich waters. The sanctuary surrounds Channel Islands National Park and together they provide important habitat for marine life. A great way to visit the marine sanctuary is via a boat excursion offering Naturalist Corps volunteers on board. If you’d like an overnight trip, advance planning is critical. The islands of the national park can serve as a great base camp (by reservation only) for kayaking, hiking, fishing or other outdoor activities, but check the park’s Things to Know Before You Go page.
Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Point Reyes Station
A total of 26 species of whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions are known to frequent the waters of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, one of the most important feeding grounds in the world for the endangered blue and humpback whales. The catch is, they can only be viewed by boat, as the sanctuary is entirely offshore, 50 miles northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge. The best times for viewing are during the summer and early fall months. The annual Field Seminar to the Sanctuary, hosted by Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary in partnership with Point Reyes Field Institute, is a great way to learn about and view these rare creatures. Check the Cordell Bank class schedule in the spring to register for this late summer or early fall event.
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
By kayak or from the shore, visitors to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve can see southern sea otters frolicking with their pups within the safe confines of the estuary. They might also see seals, sea lions, and sometimes whales and dolphins visible offshore.
Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore
Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary together offer opportunities to see as many as 36 species of whales, dolphins, elephant seals and sea lions because sanctuary waters are an important feeding ground. Gray whales migrate south through the sanctuary after the winter solstice, peaking in late January. Springtime finds them returning north, through May, and a few even venture into San Francisco or Tomales Bays in spring. Point Reyes National Seashore headlands is a great place to view these animals from shore and the park offers ranger-led programs in season. For an up- close look at the animals, check out Point Reyes’ list of Outfitters and Tours or Farallon Islands’ Public Access web page. Be sure and check the park’s list of the best places to view whales from shore besides Point Reyes National Seashore. Read more about Point Reyes National Seashore.
King Range National Conservation Area
The King Range National Conservation Area is in the remote and relatively untouched region known as California's Lost Coast, offering 35 miles of rugged coastline. At the south end of the range, view California gray whales at Shelter Cove. Calm days during winter and spring are best for spotting whales off-shore with your binoculars. Shelter Cove is accessible via a long winding road from U. S. Highway 101. Plan an hour each way to make this trip. Stop en route at Mal Coombs Park, a sure bet for California sea lions.
At the north end of the range, try Mattole Recreation Site where harbor seals and sea lions congregate at the river mouth and on offshore rocks 3/4 mile north of the beach. A long day hike on the beach from the trailhead at Mattole River Campground will take you to Sea Lion Rock, where Steller sea lions spend time year-round. This hike is best enjoyed as an overnight backpack. Camping is permitted along the 5-mile trail or at the Mattole River Campground (first-come, first-serve only).
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the breeding ground for California sea lions, Steller sea lions, northern elephant seals, and harbor seals and consequently provides spectacular views of these animals. Check out elephant seals at Año Nuevo and Piedras Blancas. Northern fur seals and Guadalupe fur seals also sometimes make their way into sanctuary waters. There are also 12 species of whales and dolphins frequently seen in the sanctuary plus six that are occasionally seen, such as sperm whales and killer whales. The California sea otter is often spotted in the kelp beds that flourish in sanctuary waters—try Point Sur to improve your odds!
Gray whales are regulars at Point Sal as are the southern sea otter and the California sea lions. The area is also a unique meeting point and transition zone for tide pool life and plant life common to the north and south coasts of California.
Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area
The Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area offers ample opportunities to see California sea lions, harbor seals, northern elephant seals, sea otters, gray whales, humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins. Stroll along the established boardwalk for close encounters with elephant seals-large “alpha” or high ranking male elephant seals are usually present from December to February.
Redwoods National and State Parks
Bring your binoculars and drive to Klamath River Overlook, a prime spot for watching the gray whale migration in Redwoods National Park. During the season and if the weather is clear, you can see Pacific gray whales feeding in the shallow water within a few hundred yards of shore. Look for other marine mammals and a host of seabirds any time of year, or hike ¼ mile down a steep trail to the lower overlook for more dramatic views. The Klamath River Overlook is located off Highway 101 on Requa Road. Also try exploring Enderts Beach and Crescent Beach Overlooks for outstanding Pacific Ocean views which just might include a gray whale!
Stornetta Public Lands
The Stornetta Public Lands are located north of the town of Point Arena. Visit the Point Arena Lighthouse for the best viewing opportunities. Calm days in winter are the best time for spotting gray whales. Bring your binoculars for off-shore viewing. The area also offers excellent opportunities for hiking, bird watching, tidepooling, picnicking and photography.
Biscayne National Park and Preserve
Biscayne National Park and Preserve offers a variety of ways to enjoy finback, right, sei, sperm and humpback whales, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, or the West Indian manatee. Try guided glass bottom boat, canoe or kayak trips, island excursions, snorkeling adventures, or the Family Fun Fest held the second Sunday of each month (December through April). First-come, first-serve camping is available on the islands.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to see (or snorkel with!) the West Indian manatee. The refuge was established in 1983 specifically for the manatees’ protection and this unique refuge preserves the last unspoiled and undeveloped habitat in Kings Bay, which forms the headwaters of the Crystal River. The refuge preserves the warm water spring havens, which provide critical habitat for the manatee populations that migrate here each winter. The best times for viewing manatees are late November through early March, when manatees congregate around warm water springs. Be sure and plan ahead if you want to snorkel—make reservations with one of the many dive shops or marinas in the town of Crystal River. Read more in our Spotlight article.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Whales and dolphins can be seen year-round throughout the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in both coastal and offshore waters. In the winter season, visitors may also encounter West Indian manatees swimming leisurely along the shoreline. These large, air-breathing herbivores are found in shallow, slow-moving waters where seagrass beds or vegetation flourish. For a glimpse at upcoming events around the Florida Keys, check out the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary event calendar and the Florida Keys tourism calendar to help plan your trip! Read more in our Spotlight article.
Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) National Estuarine Research Reserve
Ponte Vedra Beach
If you happen to be visiting Ponte Vedra Beach, keep your eyes open for bottle-nose dolphins off-shore in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) National Estuarine Research Reserve. From mid-November to mid-April, look for the endangered North Atlantic right whales that migrate from their feeding grounds in the north to give birth and nurse their calves in the warm coastal waters of the south Atlantic. Contact the GTM Research Reserve—Environmental Education Center for best viewing times, locations and a list of local outfitters and launching sites for kayaks and canoes, or stop by to see the 38 foot scale model of a right whale hanging from the ceiling.
Marine mammals seen in Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary include dolphins and whales. Boaters are likely to catch sight of manatees near shore while on the way to sanctuary waters. Interestingly, Gray’s Reef is located near the only known calving ground for North Atlantic right whales.
The Sanctuary is located 16 miles east of Sapelo Island, Geaorgia, between Savannah and Brunswick, and covers 22 square miles (about 14,000 acres). Gray's Reef is one of the most popular spots off the Georgia coast for recreational fishing and diving. Direct access to the reef is by boat. The sanctuary does not offer boat tours, fishing trips or dive trips to the reef, however, many independent boat operators do. Divers on the reef must be experienced in open-ocean diving; opportunities for a first-hand encounter within the sanctuary are limited for novice divers. However, sport fishing occurs year-round for all levels of anglers within the sanctuary.
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Over 20 marine mammal species inhabit the beautiful waters of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary that surround the Hawaiian Islands, including delightfully charismatic spinner dolphins and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. The visitors who attract the most attention are the thousands of humpback whales that migrate to Hawaii each winter (from November to May) to mate, calve and nurse their young in the warm waters. Check the sanctuary’s list of Top Ten Sites for Shoreline Whale Watching or sign up for a boat tour or whale watching cruises available from most of Hawaii’s harbors from December through April. The sanctuary also partners with Pu`ukohola Heiau National Historic Site on the Big Island to offer regular humpback whale watch programs.
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
Gray seals are on view at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. It is the largest haul-out site of gray seals on the Atlantic Seaboard with approximately 5,000 seals. Largely protected from human intrusion, Monomoy offers some of the most desirable habitat for seals in the region. Harbor seals also thrive on Monomoy. Morris Island offers road access and a 3/4-mile nature trail that winds through a variety of coastal habitats. North and South Monomoy Islands are accessible by private boats or, in season, by commercial ferry. On South Monomoy Island, a trail leads you to the Monomoy Lighthouse. Check Visitor Opportunities for Monomoy activities and education programs.
Nantucket National Wildlife Refuge
Visitors to Nantucket National Wildlife Refuge frequently see Gray and harbor seals that haul out here. The refuge is also an important stopover site for migratory birds and protects habitat for the federally-listed piping plover and roseate tern, as well as the state-listed common and least tern.
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Massachusetts Bay between Cape Ann and Cape Cod
With 23 species of marine mammals, including 19 species of whales and dolphins (including humpback, fin, sei, minke and sperm whales) and four species of seals, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is the most popular east coast spot for cetacean- and pinniped-watching! In fact, USA Today recognized the sanctuary as one of 10 Great Places to Catch a Whale of a Sighting in the world. Summer is the best time since that’s when many species of marine mammals congregate in sanctuary waters to gorge on schools of prey fish, such as sand lance and herring. Race Point Beach at nearby Cape Cod National Seashore (near Provincetown) is an excellent location to look for whales from the shore or join one of the many boat excursions offered at area harbors. Read more about Stellwagen Bank in our Spotlight article.
Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, Siuslaw National Forest
Cape Perpetua Scenic Area on the Siuslaw National Forest offers a Visitor Center open year-round, with a phenomenal view of the ocean and an annual winter whale watch event. The state of Oregon identifies Cape Perpetua as one of many “official” whale watching sites. Try the Restless Waters Trail, a paved trail that hugs the coastline and offers views of crashing waters, volcanic terraced tidepools and wind sculpted spruce. Read more about this area in Spotlight: A Slice of the Siuslaw National Forest.
Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge
Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge is home to harbor seals, California sea lions, Steller sea lions and northern elephant seals who use the islands as breeding and haul-out areas. These areas are closed to public entry year-round but the seabirds and pinnipeds can be viewed from many points onshore, such as Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Cape Arago in Charleston and Coquille Point in Bandon.
South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
Charleston (Coos Bay)
South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve on Coos Bay provides visitors with opportunities to see sea otters, seals, and sea lions near the shore. Bring your binoculars to view whales swimming in the waters offshore. Visit the estuary or the South Slough Interpretive Center and be sure to check the activities calendar.
Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
Prudence Island within Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is used as a haul-out site for harbor seals between September and May. The island is only accessible by ferry from Bristol—check Narrangasett Bay’s Getting to Prudence Island page for details.
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and Olympic National Park
There are at least 29 species of marine mammals that reside in or migrate through Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. This huge sanctuary (over one and a half times larger than the entire Puget Sound) is teeming with marine mammals. Gray whales pass through the sanctuary on the longest mammal migration on earth-look for their water spouts or other whale behaviors visible from shore (March to May). Sea otters, a species once hunted to extinction off the Washington coast, munch on urchins and other large invertebrates. You may be able to spot seals and sea lions while standing on the rugged coast of Olympic National Park which also offers advance reservations for camping at Kalaloch. Visit the Discovery Center for the best tips on where to see whales as well as where to hike or find the best beach.
San Juan Island National Historical Park
Visit San Juan Island National Historical Park to learn how Great Britain and the United States settled ownership of the island through peaceful arbitration (after almost going to war over a pig). Once there, you are likely to see whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. View the marine mammal guide to learn more about these animals on and around the San Juan Islands.