Island Packers is one of the most respected coastal cruise operators in Southern California. They have been offering education, recreation, and research cruises exploring California's Channel Islands since 1968. In fact, they are the official boat concessionaire for the Channel Islands National Park. This includes year round transportation to the "local islands" of Santa Cruz and Anacapa for backpackers, hikers, campers, and day trippers too. The also offer seasonal transportation to Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island too. Our trip was less about visiting the islands though and more about experiencing the rich marine habitat that surrounds them.
Island Packers offers a variety of cruises to explore the marine sanctuary, including Island Wildlife Cruises, Summer Whale Watches and Winter Whale Watches as well as Birding Excursions. They depart from Ventura Harbor where there is plenty of parking as well as an EV charging station right next to the ticket office.
Our visit was in April, pretty much right at the end of the winter season by before the summer season. Despite this timing, we had an incredible time and saw some animals and marine activity that I had never seen before.
I bring this up because we sometimes get questions from folks asking "when is a good time for a whale watching cruise" and the answer is, "it depends". The waters off the coast of Southern California almost always have "something" going on and there is almost nowhere else on earth quite as rich in marine life than the Channels Islands.
With that said, quite literally every cruise is unique. Whales, porpoises, fish, birds and other animals don't perform on command. This isn't Sea World. This is true from week to week but also from day to day and even between the morning and afternoon cruises. For instance, on the day of our trip - April 12, 2021 - they spotted 14,000 common dolphins, two gray whales, and five humpback whales. Nine days earlier they cam across 16 gray whales and five fin whales but "only" 1,000 common dolphins. Last week though on July 15th they saw two humpback whales, a blue whale, two minke, 1,900 common dolphins and 54 bottlenose dolphins. Last October they had one amazing day where they spotted 23 blue whales!
Each cruise is different and I absolutely love that they record the marine mammal sightings and share the data on their website.
On our Channel Islands whale watching cruise, there were three experiences that really stood out. At this point, I've been on almost a dozen different whale watching trips but each one is unique.
Raft of Sea Lions
As we headed towards a spot where the captain thought we might see some whales, we encountered a raft of sea lions. This "raft" featured hundreds of sea lions huddled together. I'd never seen behavior like this but essentially these sea lions will huddle together rather than heading back to shore. What was remarkable was that the entire group was also able to move in a singular motion like a flock of birds. At one point we were watching the group on one side of the boat, then they disappeared only to surface again on the other side of the boat.
Mother and Calf Learning To Fish
While my photos simply don't do it justice, seeing a mom and calf diving together and surfacing was a beautiful sight. For some folks who have never been on a whale watching cruise, seeing only spouts and tails might be disapointing but I've been on day-long cruises where that's all you see as the whales are essentially asleep and simply traveling from one place to the next.
Here though, the animals were active and engaged. If the weather had been better I'm sure my photos would have been as well. Unfortunately it is tough shooting long distances while the wind is blowing hard and the boat is rocking back and forth. Sometimes though it is as much your personal experience as what you can share with friends back home and that's certainly the case here as well!
Thousands of Common Dolphins
The only other place where I'd seen thousands of dolphins was in Baja on the Sea of Cortez but I'd never seen anything of the magnitude that we saw on this day. Not only did we see one mega pod of dolphins as we headed out but we saw a second one on the way back. As mentioned above, my photos here simply don't do it justice. At one point the dolphins jumping out of the water spanned all the way to the horizon.
The naturalist onboard The Islander estimates that we saw as many as 14,000 common dolphins that day!
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Is A Special Place
There are few places on earth as rich in marine life as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Scientists have identified 28 different species of whales and dolphins in the waters here, as well as other animals such as sea otters, sea lions, and birds. Fin, humpback, and blue whales are especially attracted to the area between June and September as the currents create an up-welling of plankton food for the whales to feed on.
However, there almost isn't a bad time of year to visit for a whale watching tour. Your choice will simply depend on what animals you are most interested in hopefully experiencing and your tolerance for weather. Clearly summer weather will be warmer than winter but if you are hoping to see the famous Pacific Gray Whales then winter is when you'll see them swimming through California's Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.