Photo: Dominic Laniewicz/Shutterstock

Visiting the Best Place to See Whales Year-Round Is a Great Way to Help Them Thrive

Santa Barbara Wildlife Sustainability
by Tim Wenger May 31, 2024

In October of 2023, the Santa Barbara Channel was officially recognized as the second Whale Heritage Area in the United States. The region received the accolade in response to local efforts led by the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, conservationist Jean-Michel Cousteau, and local leaders including biologists and business owners to showcase conservation and education efforts supporting a thriving ecosystem for cetaceans in this beautiful stretch of southern California. The Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area is the best place in the world to see whales year-round, and doing so helps to protect their environment for the future.

The Whale Heritage Areas effort was started by the World Cetacean Alliance, a UK-based non-profit under the guidance of Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacque Cousteau. Whale Heritage Areas are a flagship effort of the WCA. and seek to promote environmental restoration and maritime conservation in habitats and feeding grounds along whale migration routes. For Santa Barbara, the designation is a marker of success for local conservation efforts.

How the Santa Barbara Channel became a Whale Heritage Area

whale in santa barbara channel whale heritage area

Photo: Vikki Hunt/Shutterstock

“When I started working out here in the ‘90s, we didn’t see a lot of whales,” Holly Lohuis, a Santa Barbara-based marine biologist and educator with the Ocean Futures Society, told Matador.

The decline was a result of industrial whaling and habitat degradation.

“There’s a great conservation success since then of bringing these animals back from the brink of extinction,” Lohuis says.

Those efforts were led by the maritime museum, local conservationists and business owners who worked to enact conservation statuses in and around the channel, including 13 Marine Protected Areas enacted between 2003 and 2007. Smaller efforts continued to take place over the ensuing years, until Lohuis and other local conservationists began working with Cousteau and his organization.

A steering committee was formed in 2021 to begin the application process to have the Santa Barbara Channel designated as a Whale Heritage Area. To meet the requirements, the committee had to show how the destination follows four major pillars – responsible tourism, conservation initiatives already in place to protect marine mammals, community education, and cultural components that demonstrate how the area will engage the community in ocean conservation efforts well into the future.

Santa Barbara’s designation follows that of Dana Point south of Los Angeles, making it the second in the US. Lohuis, alongside Hiroko Bensko, owner of the Condor Express whale watching tour operator, and Greg Gorga, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, led the effort to secure the accreditation.

“We were able to get candidate site status pretty quickly,” Lohuis says. “Then it was about a year and a half or so of building the elements to show that we meet that criteria. Whales are these iconic species, and we can use these stories of hope to engage the general public and tourists on what are some of the environmental issues that face us today, including how we can we be a collective voice to protect wild places such as the Santa Barbara Channel.”

How to see whales in the Santa Barbara Channel

condor express in santa barbara channel

Photo: HannaTor/Shutterstock

For travelers, becoming part of that voice involves visiting Santa Barbara and supporting the businesses and organizations that helped bring the whales back to their natural habitat in the waters separating mainland California from the Channel Islands.

Lohuis notes that the best way to see whales in the Santa Barbara Channel is to sign up for a boat tour with a local whale watching tour operator. Condor Express offers such expeditions year round, with daily 4.5-hour excursions costing $125 per person. Special events, party cruises, and private charters are also available. Santa Barbara Whale Watch and Santa Barbara Sailing Center offer similar options.

While tours are available daily, you’ll have the opportunity to see different types of whales depending on the season in which you visit. February to early April is best for California Grey Whales. May to September is the time for Blue Whales, Minke Whales, and Humpback Whales. Orcas occasionally make appearances during this time of year, as do Right Whales. Tours generally include a “whale sighting guarantee” that provides a credit for a future cruise in the unlikely instance that none are seen on your tour.

Passenger ships shuttling visitors to Channel Island National Park often see whales en route, so if you’re heading to the park keep eyes peeled on the way there and on the way back.

How to further support the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area

channel islands national park

Photo: Kelly vanDellen/Shutterstock

By visiting and taking a whale watching tour, you are doing your part to support marine mammal conservation in the area.

“The whole goal of a network of marine protected areas is to engage tourists to go to locations with responsible tourism,” Lohuis says. “That has been the heart of our whale watching history in Santa Barbara for decades. Visitors are instrumental in supporting the businesses that are doing their best to mitigate any potential impact on wildlife here.”

Another local program supporting whales in the Santa Barbara Channel is the Blue Whales Blue Skies Initiative. This program encourages container ships to slow down when moving through the channel, giving whales the chance to get out of the way should they happen to be in the path of the shipping route.

“One of the biggest threats facing whales around the world is being run over by these large container ships,” Lohuis says. “We’re literally urbanizing our oceans, turning them into these busy freeways of fast, loud, air-polluting ships. The Blue Whales Blue Skies Initiative was spearheaded by the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary that surrounds the Channel Islands National Park. When the ships reduce their speed to 10 knots or less, whales have shown that they have enough time to get out of the way.”

You can support the effort by shopping with retailers and brands that ship with member shipping companies and, if you live in southern California, by asking shippers calling on local ports to sign up for the program.

Stopping into the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and supporting is efforts financially is also a great way to support the whales. Lastly, following Leave No Trace principles, minimizing waste, and ensuring it reaches proper disposal bins is essential to a healthy ocean habitat.

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