Highway 1 near Big Sur is one of the best places in the world for wildlife viewing–particularly whale watching. Just an hour south of our San Francisco rental site, you’ll find whales, elephant seals, dolphins, sea otters, and more along the California Central Coast. We’ve highlighted the best places to see wildlife in Big Sur. We organized it both by wildlife and by location so that you can make the most out of your next trip.
Time of year: Early December through April
During this time, you can spot gray whales from just about any turnout along Highway 1 near Big Sur. From December to February, they head south to their breeding grounds in Mexico. Then, starting around February, they’ll head north again to spend the summer months in the Arctic waters off Alaska. This is a large-scale migration–over 20,000 animals pass by Big Sur and Monterey very close to shore. If you’re traveling the coast in a campervan, you’ll get a front row seat to watch the show.
The February to April migration is especially interesting because mothers and calves will pass very close to land on their way North. This is a safety precaution since newborn calves are vulnerable to killer whale attacks when they cross the deep underwater canyon of Monterey Bay.
What to look for
Gray whales are a medium-sized baleen whale that is approximately 45 ft in length. They are a patchy gray color and covered in barnacles. They have no dorsal fin but a set of “knuckles” along their back leading down to their paddle-like tail flukes.
When looking for gray whales from land, you can spot them when they come up to breathe. It looks like a puff of steam or smoke coming up off the water. Generally, they breathe 3-4 times in a row (~30-45 seconds apart) and then dive (showing their tail flukes) for 5-7 min before the next surfacing. When facing the ocean, you can track whales to the left (south) across your field of view in the winter and to the right (north) in the spring as they travel.
Time of year: May through December
Humpbacks are one of the most active and acrobatic of the large whale species and can be an awesome sight to experience up close and personal. During this time, humpback whales reside in Monterey Bay feeding on the resident anchovies, sardines, and krill. Although it’s possible to see these giants from shore, it’s best to get out on the water and take a whale watching tour from one of the many operators located in the Monterey Bay. It’ll typically run you $40-50 for a 3-4 hour trip. You can’t go wrong with any of the local whale watching tours, but Escape likes Monterey Bay Whale Watch as our go-to tour. Give them a shout at 831-375-4658 or check them out online at gowhales.com.
Time of year: Summer
The largest species in the world spends its summer months feeding on krill in Monterey Bay. These whales grow upwards of 100 ft, twice the size of the baleen whale species encountered in the area. June and July are the best times of the year to see these giants. You will definitely want to jump on a whale watch vessel to catch a glimpse of them.
Northern Elephant Seal
Time of year: December through March
If you’re traveling Highway 1 during this time, you’ve got the luck of a true Escapee because there’s a 100% chance you’ll catch a sighting of the extraordinarily awesome, freakishly-weird northern elephant seal. They spend up to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving up to 5,800 feet deep (1,700 meters) for periods of up to two hours. At 3,000 kg, the males are certainly one of the strangest animals on the planet.
Like clockwork, each December they come ashore on two beaches in Central California: Piedras Blancas and Año Nuevo State Park. When they first arrive, the males literally beat each other up, each vying for as many females as he can get his flippers on. Then, they spend the next few weeks breeding, birthing their pups, and taking a much-needed breather from the sharks and general ravages of the open ocean.
The Piedras Blancas rookery is about 7 miles north of the town of San Simeon (250 miles north of Los Angeles) on the California Central Coast. It’s an unbeatable viewing area because the seals have conveniently situated themselves RIGHT NEXT to the highway. Once you leave your campervan, you’ll be a few dozen meters from the action. The area is open for viewing every day of the year and it’s free!
The desolate Ano Nuevo State Preserve is 20 miles north of Santa Cruz (55 miles south of San Francisco). It’s home to the largest breeding colony of northern elephant seals in the world. Between December and March, Ano Nuevo only offers guided walks to check out the rookery. It’s about a 2-mile hike, it’s in the sand, and the weather can become pretty harsh. It’s worth the effort, though, because you get right into the middle of all the elephant seal action.
Tours cost $7 per person and reservations may be needed. Call 800-444-4445 to get set up or book it online at anonuevo.reservecalifornia.com
Killer Whales, Dolphins, & Sea Otters
Time of year: Year-round
Killer whales, dolphins, and sea otters can be seen year-round in the Monterey and Big Sur area. When driving along Big Sur, dolphins can be seen from the high vantage points of the cliffs at vehicle pull-offs. It’s possible to see bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, and Pacific white-sided dolphins.
Sea otters can be seen in the kelp beds along the coastlines.
Transient killer whales are commonly seen in Monterey Bay in the springtime, following the migration of the young gray whale calves traveling with their mothers. They hunt marine mammals such as sea lions, seals, dolphins and whale calves. March-May is when they are sighted most frequently by whale watching vessels traveling in their hunting grounds over the Monterey Submarine Canyon, but they can be seen during all months of the year. They’re black and white with a large dorsal fin. Occasionally they can be seen from the shore, but your best chance to see them is on a whale watching trip. Monterey Bay Whale Watch is especially invested in seeing killer whales while out on their trips because they conduct research on them in Monterey.
Point Lobos State Reserve
20 minutes south of Monterey is an Escapee favorite. Point Lobo has it all: crashing waves, harbor seals, a large population of sea otters, whales just offshore, and a bunch of tidepools to explore. This is definitely worth a stopover for a few hours as you head along the coast. Either park on the street and hike in the 2 miles or pay the $10 to drive to the parking area. Warning: this place gets crowded.
Año Nuevo State Reserve
Ano Nuevo is another Escape favorite to check out for wildlife viewing. Just a few miles north of Santa Cruz or 30 minutes south of Half Moon Bay, this state park really gets hopping between December and March when the resident elephant seals come to mate. During the other months of the year, this place is still a worthy break place because there are still tons of wildlife to check out. The best part is that during the slow months you can take unguided tours around the sand dunes along the point.
7 miles north of the wine town of San Simeon is the pullout called Piedras Blancas. This is another hangout point for the freakishly large California elephant seal. The best part about this reserve is that it’s located RIGHT next to the highway and you can most likely see, and smell, the critters from your car.
Elkhorn Slough Estuary
About halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey is the little bridge (just below a huge power plant) pinpointing Elkhorn Slough. It’s free to pull over here and there’s always a lot of harbor seals and sea otters hanging out on the backwaters of the estuary. Just north of the Elkhorn parking lot is Moss Landing State Beach. This is a great spot to catch sight of the resident humpback whales from shore. May to December are the best months.
Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
For whale watching, take the trail straight out to McWay Falls. Park on the highway (if you can find a spot) then go through the park via the tunnel. It’s a great stopover spot for a picnic.
California State Park Ranger whale tours are offered on weekends in January and February from 10 am to noon at the vista turnout located at mile marker 37, just north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.