Guide to Whale Watching at the Channel Islands National Park

January 5, 2017

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Guide to Whale Watching at the Channel Islands National Park and throughout the Santa Barbara Channel

Whale Watching: The Perfect Outing for Visitors & Locals Alike

Whales are the planet’s largest animals, and little is more breathtaking than watching one breach in front of your eyes. See them on a whale watching trip in Oxnard’s “backyard,” Channel Islands National Park from late December through mid April.

Whales migrate south through the Santa Barbara Channel along Oxnard’s shores in the winter. Take a 3-hour tour departing from the Channel Islands Harbor, where you can watch for the magnificent gray whales along with a wide variety of other mammals. Because these waters are known for their diversity, viewers often see gray whales, humpback whales, seals, sea lions, several species of dolphins along with an occasional orca whale pod. Whales’ habits are extremely interesting, and even though they are relatively well studied, some of their behavior is still a little mysterious.

Learn some of their distinctive habits before heading out on your whale watching excursion!


The first sign most visitors see when out whale watching is the visible spouting. Spouting can be seen for as far as miles away, especially on a clear day. Commonly confused as a fountain of water, spouting is simply the misty result of the whale exhaling. When nearby, spouting is an explosive “whoosh” that can be heard from up to a ½ mile away! The force of the spout is due to the fact that whales don’t breathe as often as humans do. As a result, they come to the surface and have to take in and let out a lot of air quickly.


Scientists are still working to understand why whales breach. The spectacular act of a whale leaping out of the water cuts a signature figure commonly seen on billboards, t-shirts, and magazines alike. Theories on why whales breach range from an act of trying to shake parasites off their skin, to communicating to each other, to just plain having fun.


You’ll get a good look at a whale’s tail when they dive. Almost as picturesque as when they breach, whales tend to make a series of shallow dives followed by a deep dive. Be patient and keep your eyes peeled! Gray whales can dive from anywhere from three to 15 minutes, and when they come up, it’s almost always in a different spot than you saw them last.


When a whale juts directly up out of the water with its head pointed to the sky, it’s called spyhopping. Whales and dolphins both spyhop. Literally holding their heads out of the water, they spyhop to see what is around them. Whales have been known to rise so that their head is 8-10 feet above the surface. They even sometimes turn slowly for up to thirty seconds before slipping back into the water.

How to Take a Tour

Island Packers Whale Watching tours depart from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard for a 3 to 3 1/2 hour cruise along the Santa Barbara channel. In addition to gray whales, you may also encounter a wide variety of marine life including dolphins, seals, sea lions, and orca’s. Increase your trip from a half day to a full day and enjoy a landing on the Channel Islands at Anacapa Island or Santa Cruz Island.

Gear to Take Along:

  • Binoculars – highly recommended! With a pair of binocs you might be able to make out easy-to-miss details like barnacles on a gray whale.
  • Camera – there’s nothing like capturing a pod of dolphins swimming alongside your vessel in the Santa Barbara Channel.
  • Jacket – chilly mornings give way to warm afternoons, so be sure to dress in layers.
  • Sunscreen & lip balm – don’t even think about heading out on the ocean without these must-have items. Even when it’s overcast, you can still get burned.
  • Sunglasses – polarized if possible. The more glare from the waves you can cut down, the more likely you’ll be able to see the wildlife.

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