This is not intended as a comprehensive whale-watching guide. This is largely just a way to quickly/easily answer the question I often get: "What time should I come see the whales?" This is also targeted strictly at whale watching in Pacifica from shore. I may add more to this as time goes on, for now I just wanted something I could quickly point to, since I've been posting a lot of whale photos which leads to the inevitable questions of when and where to see them. Also note I am NOT an expert. I just enjoy watching and photographing whales (and really just about every creature, landscape, etc). These are my observations and opinions, nothing more.
In this section I will try to provide any current information that might be helpful. I strongly recommend reading the other sections first.
One of the best ways right now of knowing when/where the whales are is to follow the Pacifica Whalespotting Facebook group. This is a public group and is updated fairly regularly when people see whales (also feel free to add to the group by posting when/if you see a whale!). That group is: Pacifica Whalespotting. Also consider helping the researchers by Reporting your Sightings.
In June we had a mix of Humpback and Gray Whales. While this is the time/season for Humpbacks, it is very unusual for the Grays to be here right now. The Grays also are not supposed to be hanging around - we really only should see them as they pass by on their way to Alaska. However there have been about 4-5 Grays which had been stayig around most of June and a little into July (July 12 update - I haven't seen any of the Grays in about 10 days).
The Humpbacks have made the central/northern California coast their feeding grounds. So they will often stay around for a while, as long as the food is plentiful. They may move down to Monterey or up to the north coast, depending on what the bait fish are doing. If we're lucky, they can be here for weeks or even months. But don't count on them being around for long periods - they can disappear as quickly as they appear.
The previous paragraph was somewhat prophetic, as shortly after I wrote it, all the whales seemed to suddenly disappear. They were gone for about a week and then a Humpback was spotted and photographed near Esplanade on July 9th, and two Humpbacks were spotted (and I photographed) on July 10th near the pier.
While in general there typically isn't a strong correlation between time-of-day and when to see the whales, as described in the When to See the Whales section, for the past 5 or 6 days (as of June 30, 2022) the Humpbacks seem to have been most active in the mornings and evenings. I've tended to see a lot more tail slapping in the evenings. This often seems to be a communication saying "OK guys, time to head out". The Gray Whales seem to be active nearly all day long. July 12 update - the 2 Humpbacks I saw at the pier on July 10th were around in the morning, but left just before noon and I didn't see them again (though the marine layer rolled in heavy, so even if they were around, it would be tough to see them).
The Gray Whales have been spending a lot of their time in the Esplanade area, but they've typically been moving from the Esplanade area down to about Mori Point and back up to Esplanade. They've been making these rounds multiple times each day. As they head past the pier, they often come extremely close. Here's one of the shots I got of one of them from the pier. They seem to head north at the end of the day, somewhere around sunset. July 12 update - I haven't seen any of the Grrays in about 10 days.
Unfortunately I don't really have a very good answer to this question. Some swear they're mostly active in the morning. Some say that evening is best because the sun (if there is sun ... ) lights up the spout spray. In all the years I've been living here and watching the whales I haven't really discerned any real pattern except that you'll find the whales when and where the fish are. I've looked at the time stamps of my whale photos and I've gotten good shots at every hour of the day.
While there isn't a time of day that's best, there may be some correlations to tides, currents and winds. However I haven't put the time in to try and make those correlations. One loose correlation I think I've noticed is that when there have been fairly windy days, the whales seem to be more common. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that the wind action may bring up cooler water from down deep which helps bring nutrients that the bait fish like.
As a photographer, and being land-based, I do tend to prefer trying to photograph the whales in the morning because the lighting tends to be better. So I do have more photographs from the morning hours, but that's almost certainly a selection bias due to spending more time photographing in the mornings.
Where to see them depends on a variety of factors. First-and-foremost I'll reiterate that the whales tend to be where the food is, so there are no hard-and-fast rules. It also depends on what type of view you're looking for, what type of access you want and how much time you have.
If luck is on your side, I can't think of a better place to whale watch than the Pacifica Pier. It is not uncommon for whales to come literally right up to the pier - to the point that you are looking nearly straight down on them. I've had times where I would have needed a wide angle lens to properly photograph a whale that was almost directly beneath me. The pier also provides a pretty good view up-and-down a lot of the coast. There's a cafe at the pier so you can grab a bite to eat or a hot drink to keep you warm as you watch. There are bathrooms, which is a definite plus if you have the time and patience to wait for the whales to show up. Here is an example of a photo I took at the pier, where the whale was just plain too close for the lens I was using.
Mori Point provides probably the most expansive view. You can see north all the way to Mussel Rock and south all the way to Pedro Point, as well as a relatively decent view into the Rockaway Beach area. It's a little bit of a walk and climb, but there are stairs going up the hillside and the trails are relatively well-maintained. The whales sometimes come fairly close as they round the point, or hang out in the areas just north and just south of Mori Point.
Mussel Rock is another location that provides a pretty expansive view and the whales occasionally come somewhat close. Unlike Mori Point, you can basically drive there and there is some parking. You may also get to watch the paragliders while you wait if it's a windy day.
Just south of Mussel Rock, there are several viewing spots that generally get lumped into "Esplanade". There's a short trail just north of the RV park called Esplanade Overlook Trail. There are a few benches and a short paved trail. If you walk a bit further north, past the post office, right by Oceanaire apartments (which used to be Lands End apartments) there is an overlook area right by a trail heading down to the beach.
Linda Mar Beach doesn't get as deep as fast as some of the more northern areas, so the whales tend not to come in quite as close, but they do still come in moderately close. Viewing from the beach gets you closer, and you can also grab food at the Taco Bell. If you have binoculars and/or a long camera lens (or you just want to see spouts) - Roberts Road can be a good place to try.
This is another one that requires some walking/hiking but arguably provides an even wider view than Mori Point. You typically won't be able to see the whales come as close, but if you want to see if there are whales pretty much anywhere in the Pacifica area, this is a good place to go.
When they opened the new tunnel on Highway 1, they turned the old section of Highway 1 into a walking/biking trail. There are beautiful cliff-side views from this trail. If you're also interested in birds, this is a nice place to look. If you're lucky, you'll catch a view of some of the Peregrine Falcons which hang out there.
The NOAA guide to whales, dolphins and porpoises of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sancetuary is a good way to familiarize yourself with the types of whales, dolphins and porpoises we have around here. While it is targeted at Monterey Bay, the information largely applies to the Pacifica area too. Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the MBNMS
Since this page is primarily about whale watching from shore, I'll point out that you'll primarily only see two types of whales here: Humpbacks and Grays. The Blue Whales stay further offshore and transit closer to The Farallones. However their spouts are huge, so on a clear day you can see their spouts, even from shore. The Minke Whales are around and I believe I've seen them on a few occasions, but they don't seem to be as easily spotted. The Orcas also occasionally come by, but like the Blues, they seem not to come very close to shore around here.
As mentioned earlier, the Grays typically don't hang around, we primarily see them as they cruise on by to/from Alaska/Baja. Recently we've had a a few Grays which have been hanging around and feeding. The Grays are the ones that often come in prettty close to shore. They typically feed by scooping up stuff from the sea floor and often come shallow to do so. The Grays are fairly "sedate" in terms of viewable behavior. They typically just cruise along, occasionally coming up to breathe. They do have a fun behavior often called "sharking" where they roll on their side and stick up their pectoral fin and often part of their fluke. They'll swim along like this, looking almost like a shark fin. Here's a photo I got of one of them doing that in the surf.
The Humpbacks are often more acrobatic and visually interesting to watch, as they lunge feed, breach and/or tail slap. If you see a whale coming up out of the water and/or tail slapping - that's almost certainly a Humpback.
When you spot whales, you can help your fellow Pacificans out by reporting your sightings to the Pacifica Whalespotting group.
If you'd like to help the researchers by being a citizen scientist, you can report your sightings to the Marine Mammal Center or Happywhale. If you have photographs, they can sometimes ID the exact animal you saw. If you have Humpback whale fluke (tail) shots, your best bet is to submit those to Happywhale. Other whale, dolphin or porpoise sightings would generally go to the Marine Mammal Center. They are especially interested in Bottlenose Dolphin sightings.
Submit Humpback Whale fluke sightigs to Happywhale.
Submit other whale, dolphin and porpoise sightings to The Marine Mammal Center.