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What Should You Look for When Watching Whales?

Gray whale with heart-shaped blow

More than 139,397,000 miles of salty seawater cover just over 70% of planet earth.

With so many miles of ocean, it can feel overwhelming just thinking about how to spot whales amongst the vast miles of waves and swell. Searching what can feel like an endless sea, looking for any sign of life, can be challenging. But for all of us here at Capt. Dave’s, it’s our favorite daily “to do.” If you are interested in how to spot whales in the Pacific Ocean, look no further. We have all of our top insider tips just for you!

“I am the ocean. I’m water. I’m most of this planet. I shaped it. Every stream, every cloud, and every raindrop. It all comes back to me.” Nature is Speaking, THE OCEAN, Conservation International

If you don’t already know, Dana Point, located just 33 miles from Disneyland, is one of the most incredible places to search for whales and dolphins and other friendly ocean cetaceans. Responsible for covering about 30% of the earth’s surface, the Pacific Ocean is home to some of our favorite sighted species. Where to spot whales is best in Dana Point, California, because multiple whale species live here. The enormous blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the ultra-fast fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the large and acrobatically in charge humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), the ridge-topped Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera brydei), sometimes shy minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), and of course all of our swiftly swimming dolphins, which are whales too all call this place their home! If you want to know how to spot whales in all of these species, you first have to know the different attributes these species display at the surface.

Baleen Whales Blow!

“There she blows” – a phrase commonly heard in seaworthy stories told ‘round the world is one of many things we look for when trying to learn how to spot whales. Looking at the characteristics of a whale’s blow helps us differentiate between the species we are looking at. Different whale species have not just unique physical markings and features, they commonly have individual blow behaviors as well. For instance, when looking at one of our beloved whales in Dana Point, called the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), the blow is commonly low and bushy similar to that of a minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata). The shape of a whale’s blow is a huge help to researchers and whale enthusiasts alike when thinking about how to spot whales. Gray whales have a distinct heart-shaped blow too. The blow of another whale seen in Dana Point, CA, the Whale Watching Capital of the World® is much different if you find yourself near one of our summer visitors like the massive blue whale. Their blow is unmistakable and looks incredibly different from all of the smaller baleen whale species. With a set of blowholes reaching up to 20” in length, a blue whale’s blow skyrockets straight up into the sky and reaches over 30 feet into the air! That is about the size of two giraffes! When you are the largest animal on earth, your breath is also seen for miles making this magnificent whale’s blow one of the most memorable when practicing how to spot whales. Fin whales and blue whales are famous for their massive size and massive blows. In contrast, a more conical blow belongs to that of a lesser-seen sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis). The shape and size of blows play important roles in identifying what type of whale you’re spotting.

Dolphins Dip And Dive!

All is ‘whale’ out at sea when Dana Point whale watching, and you capture a glance of dolphins amongst the 60,045,000 miles of ocean that make up the Pacific Ocean. Larger dolphins like Risso’s (Grampus griseus) and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have similar surface blow behaviors that help spotters know what species they are looking at. Unlike smaller dolphins such as short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) and Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens), when larger dolphins exhale, it almost looks like short steam vents pushing through the ocean’s surface. Another key element of whale-watching when learning about how to spot whales is understanding a whale’s anatomy. All odontocetes or toothed whales only have one blowhole compared to larger baleen whales. So, a dolphin’s blow only extends a few feet and will be seen much more frequently at the surface. They also do not typically stay underwater for the same time either. While the more enormous baleen whales may hold their breath for 12-15 minutes, toothed whales tend to only stay underwater for a few minutes at a time. Although some species stay underwater longer, “how to spot whales” is a more simple question when you see dolphins. Dolphins travel in family groups. You will see several spouts together at one time when seeing dolphins, unlike when you see larger baleen whales, who travel alone or in small groups of only a few individuals. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but generally, deciphering if you are seeing a whale or a dolphin based on their surface blow patterns helps when learning how to spot whales, and dolphins are much more apparent once you know what to look for.

Strength In Numbers

Because odontocetes are all about their families, toothed whales like dolphins are typically found in larger groups. Sometimes these groups, called pods, can reach into the hundreds. When hundreds turn to thousands, pods turn into herds. The largest herd of dolphins we’ve experienced was approximately 10,000 individuals making this group a “mega herd.” Now that is one heck of a family reunion if you ask us! When looking at the surface and sharing with others, the keys to how spot whales are also understanding and seeing a larger group of whales, which usually means dolphins!

Pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are famous for sticking close when traveling in their family groups. When sleeping, these larger toothed whales perform a behavior called logging. Logging allows the whales to nestle tightly together at the surface to protect one another from predators. It also keeps these marvelous mammals at the surface, so they can remember to breathe. Like us, whales are mammals. They require oxygen to live. Staying at the surface while swimming at a plodding and tight-knit pace is their best chance at protecting themselves while asleep. Knowing how to spot whales is essential when you see this behavior to ensure that you do not disrupt the animals and allow them to stay asleep while still having the pleasure of seeing them in the wild. At Capt. Dave’s, we always have the animal’s interest top of mind and always do everything we can to never interrupt an active behavior in progress.

The life of a baleen whale can be a lonely one. Unlike dolphins, who live with family groups for life, larger rorqual whale offspring leave the comforts of the home early on in life once they reach the appropriate size. While many whales of the same species may live close to one another, knowing how to spot whales comes in handy when you see more than one whale with another. A great spot that shows us this example is Hawaii. While humpback whales are seen year-round in Dana Point waters, Hawaii is famous for having a surplus of mating-aged males breach and show off for the affection of their female mate. In other areas of the Hawaiian islands, mothers and calves find refuge and enjoy some family time together. Gray whales can also be found in larger groups during their mating and birthing seasons off the coast of Mexico, in the calm and protected lagoons of Baja California.

While some groups do spend time with other mating whales or friend groups, when traveling, larger rorqual whales are frequently found with just a few individuals, if not completely alone.

“You came into my life, just like another season. Not for long, just a time. Just like another season. Maybe this time next year, you’ll reappear for no reason, but I’ll cherish every day till you come my way this season.” Cadmium, Song: Seasons

Seasons Come, And Seasons Go

Knowing how to spot whales depends on the time of year you are looking for whales. While Dana Point, California, is home to more species of whales in one place than any other spot in the world, certain times of the year bring about different visitors to our whale-filled waters. As mentioned earlier, summer break in California is also a hot spot for sighting the world’s largest animal, the blue whale! And who could blame them? It’s lovely here! While blue whales are the stars of summer, gray whales are our winter wonders, and they, wow, wintertime visiting passengers early on from November through the onset of May when blue whales steal the show. Lucky for us, there are plenty of whales in the sea, and humpbacks, minke, sei’s, fin, and Bryde’s whales are seen all year long. While so many species in the water may be impressive, knowing what we are likely to see based on seasonality also helps provide a foundation for understanding how to spot whales. Don’t forget; the ocean can be unpredictable! Any day could be a day when you see a whale out of season too!


Seeing the wildlife from above is a tried and true tell-tail sign of potential whales which could be lurking underneath. That is right! Sea birds play a huge role in assisting whale-watching enthusiasts worldwide. Many species hunt for the same food source when it comes to the ocean. Pinnipeds like California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), toothed whales such as bottlenose dolphins, and even some larger baleen whales all feed on smaller schooling baitfish. So, when it comes to thinking about how to spot whales, one of the best things you can do is look up at the birds. Diving California brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis californicus) and circling arctic terns (Sterna paradisaca) coupled with sooty shearwaters (Ardenna grisea), Brandt’s cormorants (Urile penicillatus) and Pacific gulls (Larus pacificus) love a good fish feed. They know dolphins know where to find it too. Using echolocation, toothed whales can seek out their fishy food of choice from miles away, and birds have learned that if they follow the dolphins, they can all share in the feast! The next time you are out on the water and are scouring the sea for any sign of sealife or sharing about how to spot whales, don’t forget to look up! You never know when a bird or a flock of birds may just take you to the best whale-watching you have ever seen.

What’s That Smell?

So now we know baleen whales and toothed whales have different characteristics. We have also learned that blow behavior helps spotters determine how to spot whales in different sizes and that the number of whales together can further define how many whales we may be seeing. These tips play an essential role when learning how to spot whales. If you think you may have caught a glimpse of a whale nearby, but you just weren’t sure, a few other things to think about are the smells in the air. One of our favorite baleen whales is the smallest of the great rorquals. And, when this whale is nearby, it is sometimes easier to smell it before you see it. That’s right, commonly called ‘stinky minkes’ for the robust smell they leave in the air is due to the anchovies these cute 30-foot whales spend most of their time eating. Minke whales can be shy and elusive. Sometimes, understanding what food source a whale maybe snacking on will help you determine how to spot whales. This is especially true when it comes to minkes.

Whales Don’t Have Feet

All of this said, how to spot whales is still more easily said than done. If you haven’t seen the most obvious signs of life, like dolphins entirely out of the water or the unmistakable sight of a breaching whale, then you can always look for a whale’s footprint. While whales do not have feet, larger rorqual baleen whales leave behind a surface footprint. These footprints develop as whales near the surface, and their fluke or tail causes friction in the water. The result we see above the water is a circular oil slick at the surface. Footprints can help us find whales and aid in determining the direction a whale may be traveling. How to spot whales can sometimes feel like locating a needle in a haystack. We hope it will be more fun than challenging now that you know what you are looking for with these tips.

Aboard Manute’a (pronounced mah-noo-tay-ah), our high-tech, high-speed catamaran sailboat offering the world’s most unique dolphin and whale watching experience in Orange County, you can spot whales in eye-to-eye viewing pods. If speed is what you like, you can zip through the waves and have the wind blow through your hair as the thrill of our Zodiac Safaris take you on a thrilling adventure with views so close to the water you feel like you can touch the animals. Any boat you choose will delight your senses and bring you one-stop closer to becoming a whale enthusiast!

Unlocking the keys of how to spot whales is essential. Book your trip with us today and put what you’ve learned into action. There is no better place to put all of your new skills to the test. No matter the time of year, every day is always the perfect day for whale watching in Dana Point, the Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World®.

Until next time,

Jess Wright
First Mate and Marine Naturalist
Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari

Gift an unforgettable dolphin and whale watching experience! With year-round whales, dolphins, sea lions, sharks, and more, any time is a great time for your recipient to enjoy their gift.

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods…” – Dr. Thomas Gilovich