Where to See Sea Lions, Elephant Seals & Whales

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The winter is a perfect time to visit some of the marine mammals that live along our Bay Area coast. PIER 39 is celebrating 30 years of sea lion residents this month and elephant seal pupping season is in full effect. Scroll through for all our recs on where to see sea lions, elephant seals, sea otter and even whales in the Bay Area!

San Francisco

photo: Kate Loweth


January 2020 marks the 30th Anniversary of the world-famous sea lions’ arrival to PIER 39. The boisterous barking pinnipeds came sparingly at first after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in October 1989, but soon after they arrived in droves reaching more than 500 in number by January of 1990. With a protected environment and plentiful supply of food from the Bay, the sea lions quickly decided to make PIER 39’s K-Dock their new home.

To commemorate the 30th Anniversary, PIER 39 along with Aquarium of the Bay, will launch the “Sea Lions in San Francisco” initiative in January. Join PIER 39 to celebrate these playful mammals with a painted sea lion statue exhibition, Sea Lion Discovery Walks, special discounts and more from January 17-20. Check out our guide to PIER 39 here

Online: pier39.com

photo: Marianne Hale

San Francisco Zoo

Head to the San Francisco Zoo to see the resident male California sea lion, Henry. Henry was rescued by the Marine Mammal Center as he was blinded from injury and disease in the wild and no longer able to survive on his own. If you head to the sea lion pool at 2 p.m. you can hear a keeper talk to learn more about these fascinating and social creatures!

Online: sfzoo.org

Peninsula/South Bay

Año Nuevo State Park, Davenport

Año Nuevo State Park is one of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world for the Northern Elephant Seal. Up to 10,000 of them pack the beaches of Año Nuevo for breeding season, which begins in December when the first males arrive. Weighing up to two and a half tons, these massive bulls compete for dominance in a violent spectacle that often leaves them both bloodied. From Dec. 15-Mar. 31 you'll need to book a guided tour to see the elephant seals in their native habitat. 

Online: parks.ca.gov

Whale Watching with the Oceanic Society, Half Moon Bay/San Francisco

From January-March, you can head out on a three-hour whale watching tour in search of migrating gray whales. Tours leave from Half Moon Bay and you have the chance to see whales, seals and sea lions, dolphins and porpoises, and seabirds. From April-November you can take a day trip from San Francisco to the Farallon Islands for whale watching. 

Online: oceanicsociety.org

photo: Kate Loweth

Santa Cruz Wharf

The Santa Cruz Wharf juts out into the Pacific right between the Boardwalk and The Dream Inn. Along with a number of great restaurants (we like Woodies Cafe for its good food and laid-back vibe), there are spots to go fishing and souvenir shops aplenty. Kids will love checking out the sea lions that make their home there. You can check out the viewing holes at the end of the wharf or head to the lower deck area across from Bonnie's for some up-close viewing. Nearby is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a free marine education center. 


Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing

If you are looking to see some sea otters up close, this is the activity for you. This spot is perfect for kayaking even for beginners as the waters are calm and you’ll get the opportunity to view tons of wildlife. Kayak Connection will take you out on a family adventure tour where paddlers as young as 3 can get some water time. Or, book your rental to explore on your own. You can read our kayaking with kids guide here

Kayak Connection

North Bay/Marin

photo: Marine Mammal Center

Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito

We love the Marine Mammal Center as a leader in the ocean conservation movement. You can visit this spot in the Marin Headlands (for free!) and learn about what the MMC is doing to rescue sick and injured animals. You can see current patients in pens in the back and head to the classroom to get a talk about these creatures. Guided tours are available (for a fee) Fri.-Mon. Note: the MMC is closed for renovations until Feb. 10. 

2000 Bunker Rd.
Fort Cronkite
Sausalito, CA
Online: marinemammalcenter.org

Point Reyes

Point Reyes and Chimney Rock are great spots to view elephant seals and migrating whales. Bring your binoculars and head to the Elephant Seal Overlook to check out the animals that haul out there. Check out this page for additional info on the animals there and closures that are taking places to protect the animals. 

Farther South

photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay has been a center of activity throughout the central coast’s history. Now home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, at the site of historical Hovden Cannery, the Aquarium welcomes close to two million visitors per year. You and your mini aquarists will be captivated by the natural exhibits, marine life and daily educational programs. Dip into our insider’s guide and be submerged in everything this ocean conservation facility has to offer.

886 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 
Online: montereybayaquarium.org

photo: Kate Loweth

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon

The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is a must-visit spot in San Simeon (just north of Cambria). Pretty much any time of year you can walk along the pier and see these massive animals up close. Volunteer docents are often available to answer questions. Read our guide to the central coast here

Online: elephantseal.org

photo: Kate Loweth

Sub Sea Tours Whale Watching and Harbor Cruises, Morro Bay

Reserve a spot on a three-hour whale watching tour or one-hour harbor tour. The whale watch tour takes you out past the calm harbor waters to see if you can spot gray or humpback whales that come to feed on the abundant sea life offshore. A shorter, less bumpy option (for those who might get seasick) is the harbor tour. A glass-bottomed boat takes you to visit the sea lions that have taken over a wooden platform in the harbor and the sea otters that frolic near shore. You can also rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards from this location. Check out our Morro Bay guide for more info. 

Online: subseatours.com

—Kate Loweth


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