Whale Watching in Pacifica

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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.

Current Information

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.

I've recently set up a new website and started a new blog. The blog covers all of the things I photograph, not just whales. But if you either enter "Whales" in the search box, or go to the following link, you'll see just the blog posts that are whale-related:

Chamberlin Nature Blog - Whales

Update May 27, 2024

The Humpbacks have returned. They started showing up a few weeks ago. They've been seen at all of the usual locations in Pacifica, but seem to be spending most of their time toward the north end, in the Esplanade-to-Mussel Rock area. There seems to be roughly 6 in the area, though I've personally only seen three, with one being an adult, one a juvenile and one I couldn't get a solid enough look to judge size.

Unfortunately the Memorial Day weekend has been relatively quiet so far. However there have been quite a few birds (pelicans, cormorants, surf scoters, gulls, etc) putting on pretty impressive shows and occasionally having large feeding frenzies. There's also been a fairly large (I estimate a minimum of twenty) group of sea lions cruising around and having fun. They've been going up-and-down the Pacifica Coast and if you stay in any one spot for long enough you'll have a reasonable shot at seeing them.

Update April 11, 2024

The big story recently is the entangled Gray Whale which was spotted on April 9. The Marine Mammal Center went out to try and free it, but was unable to, and unable to add a tracker to it. The whale has not been seen since, but many people are looking for it. It was last seen straight out from Thornton Beach. Reports were that after the rescue crews left it, it started to make a turn south. Later reports indicate they think it might have turned back north. If you're anywhere in the area from Pacifica up to Pt Reyes, please keep a lookout for it. The best/easiest way to spot it is by the 2 orange buoys that are trailing behind it. These were attached with a 100 foot line to the whale by NOAA to help rescuers track and locate it.

The short backstory is that it was originally spotted entangled in Southern California almost a month ago. NOAA made several attempts to free it, but the whale was being very active, preventing the rescuers from doing the work they needed to do to free it. NOAA had attached a satellite tracker and they were monitoring it as it moved north, but they lost the signal. They weren't sure why, but when the Marine Mammal Center rescue crew was on site, they determined the tracker had been lost.

Please keep an eye out for it and report to 877-SOS-WHAL (877-767-9425).

Update April 7, 2024

I saw three Gray Whales just South of the pier, very close to shore - swimming in the surf zone. At first I thought it was two small whales and one large one. But after looking at my photos more, I think there was only one small one. The other one was larger.

While I didn't get photographs of the behavior, they were doing some "sharking". Here's a shot of the small one getting its head up and out of the water.

Archives from previous years

These are archives of the Current Information section from previous years in case you want to look through them and try to make predictions based on any information there.

When to See the Whales

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 the Whales

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.

Pacifica Pier

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

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

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 (Taco Bell 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.

Pedro Point

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.

Devil's Slide Trail

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.

Types of Whales Seen Here

The NOAA guide to whales, dolphins and porpoises of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary 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.

Reporting your Sightings

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.

Reporting Entanglements and Troubled Whales

It's a good idea to have a few phone numbers programmed into your phone in case you encounter a distressed marine mammal.

To report entangled marine mammals:

To report harassments and other violations to law enforcement:

To report derelict gear:

To report a dead, injured, or stranded marine mammal