Traveling the Whale Trail in Santa Barbara

Off the coast of this Southern California city, a new Whale Heritage Area allows marine life to thrive—and visitors to explore responsibly.

A humpback whale breaches off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, USA.

Santa Barbara was named the second Whale Heritage Area in the United States (and the ninth in the world). These communities are known for respecting and protecting cetacean life and their habitats.

Photo by Elaine Peterson/Shutterstock

From the moment my nine-year-old daughter, Willa, and I deplaned at the five-gate Santa Barbara Airport, I could feel my stress levels begin to drop. Was it the live classical piano music coming from the first floor? The modern art and hand-painted murals on the terminal walls? Or that the Pacific Ocean (and the possibility of seeing whales in their natural element) was a mile away from the control tower?

After a short taxi ride to our hotel downtown, we quickly acclimated to our blissful long-weekend life in sunny Santa Barbara, the Southern California city of 88,000 set between the sea and the craggy Santa Ynez Mountains to the east. During an alfresco lunch of house-smoked trout and cold-smoked salmon at The Daisy, a pair of friendly goldendoodle owners asked us what we were in town for. “Whale watching,” I said. “The cat café,” Willa appended.

Dubbed the American Riviera for its climatological, topographic, and moneyed resemblance to France’s Côte d’Azur and Italy’s coastal Liguria region, Santa Barbara has long been an embarkation spot for whale-watching tours. In October 2023, the Santa Barbara Channel was officially designated a Whale Heritage Area by World Cetacean Alliance and World Animal Protection. The channel is only the ninth place in the world to be recognized as such, lauded for its “outstanding responsible and sustainable whale and dolphin watching,” where cetaceans and humans exist in harmony. These areas encourage visitors to experience these marine creatures in their natural habitat in a responsible way. Willa and I were hoping to do just that the next day.

But first, the cat café. Since adopting two kittens last summer, Willa has been obsessed with maximizing her time with felines. So we visited Cat Therapy, Santa Barbara’s first cat café, in the city’s ARTS District, a recently renamed downtown neighborhood filled with boutiques and art galleries and anchored by two historic theaters, the 100-year-old Granada and the Arlington. In the cozy, light-filled corner space, Willa fell in love with a tiny brown tabby, and I promised we would return to visit it again before we flew home.

The next morning, we walked down the pedestrian-friendly State Street Promenade to Santa Barbara Landing, where we met our 71-foot whale-watching catamaran, the Condor Express. Specifically designed with wildlife safety in mind, the vessel has neither propellers nor sharp rudders.

Once we were on board, captain Dave Beezer announced that tours the prior two days had seen a blue whale. The largest animals in the world, blue whales are usually found in Southern California much later in the year (July–September), and we were visiting in late May. But I was hopeful.

The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the most biologically productive marine ecosystems on earth. Humpback, gray, blue, fin, minke, sperm, and Bryde’s whales have all been spotted in its warm waters. Many dolphin and porpoise species also cruise the channel, including the orca—the largest member of the dolphin family—and common and bottlenose dolphins.

As we set off from the dock, volunteers from the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps spoke about the myriad sea creatures we might see on our four-and-a-half-hour trip. They also taught us about the oceanic food chain and the citizen science program Happywhale, a crowdsourced and AI-powered database of whale images, tags, and data used for research and conservation efforts.

About 45 minutes into our journey, somewhere between Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands, Willa and I caught sight of a fin. From our perch on the port side of the boat, we patiently waited for it to surface again. And just as quickly as we had seen the animal the first time, we heard a loud whooshing sound like no other: A humpback breached 10 feet from us, and a stream of air and water gushed like a vertical firehose from its blowhole. To describe it as awesome is an understatement. We were giddy at the scale. The closest analogy I have for the sound is that of a giant elevator dropping down a shaft.

Shortly thereafter, we spotted a fin whale, which we trailed for the next 30 minutes. Captain Dave described the fin whale as the greyhound of the seas, quick and stealthy in its movements. Getting closer to it seemed out of reach. We pressed on toward the Channel Islands, the foggy marine layer lifting to reveal a perfect view of the archipelago ahead of us.

In the distance, I spotted what looked like a small army of creatures heading toward us. As we got closer, Captain Dave told us we were in the middle of a pod of common dolphins. For the next 30 minutes, we were spellbound as hundreds, if not a thousand, dolphins swam beside us, frolicking and leaping in synchrony alongside our boat.

The blue whale eluded us (or we it), but as the boat sped east, back to the dock, Willa and I sat near the bow, the sun on our faces and a salty sea breeze at our backs. We had seen, heard, and felt what we came for. And back on land, we had a kitten to see.

Where to Stay

Santa Barbara has no shortage of sumptuous luxury resorts and boutique hotels. El Encanto, a Belmond Hotel, sits across seven acres in the Santa Ynez Mountains; the Rosewood Miramar Beach is an opulent resort on the water in neighboring Montecito; the Kimpton Canary, just off the main drag, State Street, was renovated in 2023.

Where to Eat

Gala, opened in 2023 and named for the painter Salvador Dalí’s wife, is an homage to Cadaqués, Spain. Owner Tara Penke (a Santa Barbara native) and her husband, chef-owner Jaime Riesco (a native of Chile), lived in Barcelona for nearly two decades. At Barbareño, chef Julian Martinez connects dishes to such local food traditions as Santa Maria–style barbecue, tri-tip that’s cold-smoked, cooked sous vide, and grilled over red oak. Barbareño recently began partnering with the Santa Barbara Sailing Center to offer Dining at Sea, dockside dinners on a yacht, followed by an evening sail. The Santa Barbara Public Market is a great place to stop for an impromptu lunch of tacos, bagels, or sushi. And Satellite in the ARTS District is an astronaut-themed natural wine bar and plant-based restaurant.

What to Do

The Condor Express whale-watching vessel sails year-round. Tours start at 10 a.m. and last about four-and-a-half hours. Guests can purchase food and drinks on board. For those who’d like to appreciate the more terrestrial world, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, founded in 1916, has a collection of more than 3.5 million specimens. Butterflies Alive!, an outdoor exhibit, runs through September 2. The museum also operates an aquarium and specialized sea center on Stearns Wharf.

Julia Cosgrove is vice president and editor in chief of AFAR, the critically acclaimed travel media brand that makes a positive impact on the world through high-quality storytelling that inspires, enriches, and empowers travelers who care. Julia lives in Berkeley, California.
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