How to Spot a Whale

How to Spot a Whale and Other Sea Life

It can be hard to spot a whale if you don’t know what to look for. Fortunately, our crew of  naturalists have over 25 years of experience to help you out! However, if you would like to learn more and test your skills, here are some tips that may help you see, and identify what they look like at the surface.

Where to Look for a Whale

Scan from left to right, slowly, and then back again. Look close to shore, and look out across the horizon. Watch for anything that breaks the surface of the water.

If you are out on the water with us, we will be calling out locations relevant to the boat. Think of the boat as the center of a clock, and our naturalist will call out locations relevant to the front (bow) of the boat, which is designated as 12:00 o’clock. So, if the naturalist calls out 3:00 o’clock, that would be to the right of the front of the boat or 6:00 o’clock would be off the back (stern) of the boat.

Don’t get fooled by items floating on the surface of the water. If you spot something that stays on the surface in the same location, it’s not likely a marine mammal. Marine mammals are usually on the move and will typically surface, dive, then come up again in a different place. If you see a whale’s tail, it is likely going down for a dive, and it will be a few minutes before you see it again. Don’t forget, some whales can dive for 10 minutes, or longer, so keep looking in the general area where you first saw the blow.

Identifying factors of large whales include their blow, surfacing, and diving characteristics. Other factors to observe are:

  • Body length, color, and patterns
  • Shape of blow
  • Swimming characteristics
  • Presence and size of flippers
  • Shape of head and body shape

The first indication that you have spotted a cetacean is usually a blow, fluke, or splash.

Spouts or Blows

The shape and size of the blow are distinctive to each species, based on the size and shape of their blowhole. These plumes of water are formed when a whale exhales at the surface. They can look like puffs of smoke on the horizon. If you see something that looks like a blow, keep watching! The tallest blow belongs to the blue whale where blows of up to 12m (39ft 5in) have been reported.

  • Gray whales: Have a double blowhole which creates a heart-shaped spout.
  • Humpback whales: Have a tall, column-shaped blow.
  • Orcas: Typically have a bushy-shaped blow.

Dorsal Fins

All cetaceans have dorsal fins or ridges, but the size, shape, and location on their backs differ.

  • Gray whales: small dorsal ridges.
  • Orcas: pronounced triangular fins that can grow to over 6 feet high on males.

Tail Flukes

Cetaceans have powerful tail flukes that propel them through the water. The shape and size of tail flukes are different for every species.

  • Humpback whales: Distinctive markings on the underside of their tails.
  • Gray whales: Flukes can span up to 10 feet.
  • Killer whales: Undersides are mostly white and fringed with black.
Spotting Other Sea Animals


A large field of splashes and ripples may be the clue that Pacific white-sided dolphins are passing by. The Pacific white-sided dolphin travel in big groups of up to thousands of individuals and is a magnificent sight to see.

Sea Otters

Sea otters inhabit shallow coastal areas and prefer places with kelp. Kelp acts as an anchor that the sea otters use to wrap themselves in when they are resting. Sea otters are social animals. Pups, who stay with their mothers for the first eight months of their life tend to spend time together in one group and males in another. When mothers leave the pups wrapped in kelp to hunt, pups bob on the surface of the ocean like a cork. Mothers can also be seen carrying pups on their chests.

Harbor Porpoises

One of the smallest of the oceanic cetaceans, the harbor porpoise is shy and elusive, not inclined to approach boats and bow ride, as many other species of dolphins and porpoises do. Harbor porpoises spend lots of time swimming around looking for their next meal–alone or in groups of up to 50 porpoises. These animals can be easily detected by the loud puffing sound they make as they surface to breathe.


Birds, including pelicans dive down from the sky and feed on bait fish. If you see birds, you may want to start looking for whales and other creatures since they feed on the bait fish as well.

Guaranteed whale or dolphin sighting or your next trip is FREE!

About Us

Sea Goddess is the #1 Whale Watching Company on Monterey Bay! We have a captain and crew with years of experience and the most comfortable vessel.

Our cruises depart from Moss Landing, which means less travel time and more whale watching for our guests.