Santa Barbara, CA
Family Friendly?: Yes
Age Range: All ages
Recommendations: You will be on the water for at least 4 1/2 hours. If you have trouble with sea sickness, take appropriate measures before boarding.
On a recent visit to Santa Barbara, we enjoyed a great whale watching trip on the Condor Express. The crew, boat and experience were all first rate and a lot of fun.
We reserved our trip well ahead of time because we had been told that they do fill up during busy seasons. The reservation process was very easy and it was nice that they do not actually charge you until to arrive that day. Check-in was easy and quick.
As 10:00 am approached, we were allowed to board the boat and we were directed to the upper deck seating. Two very knowledgeable volunteers gave a brief presentation on what we could expect to see and answered any questions we had. The boat departed right on time.
The Condor Express is a twin hull boat with an open upper deck and a fairly large enclosed cabin on the main deck. The cabin has table seating and a small galley. It is obviously well maintained and spotless. Even though it was a fairly breezy day, the ride was very smooth. The captain explained that the boat does not use props but is propelled by water jets so there is no danger to the sea life when he gets close – good to know.
The first part of the trip was uneventful but offered great views of the harbor and the Santa Ynez mountains beyond. About 20 minutes out, we came across a large pod of dolphins that stretched as far as the eye could see. Everyone was entertained by the way they rode the wake of the boat. Not long after that we spotted our first whales. There were 5 humpbacks feeding on a large school of fish. The captain positioned us for a great view and let us drift for a while to watch. The whales were very active and offered many views of their feeding. After maybe 10 minutes, we continued toward the Channel Islands. A little while later we came across another group of whales including a mother and her calf. Once again we were offered great views of them feeding. In addition to the ever present dolphins (there must be thousands of them out there) we were surprised to see a good number of sea lions even though we were quite far from shore.
After a few more encounters, we approached Santa Cruz island – the largest island in the Channel Island National Park. We were treated to being taken inside a large and colorful sea cave as well as great views of the island coastline. Once we cleared Santa Cruz, we went into the channel between Santa Cruz and San Miguel islands. It was beautiful! The captain seemed to know something was up because he continued quite far into the channel. A little while later we came across a large group of humpbacks, dolphins and sea lions feeding on a school of fish so large that it looked like the ocean was boiling. Some of the humpbacks were feeding by coming up from directly below the school and scooping up the fish as they rose out of the water. It was spectacular. Needless to say, we stayed there for a good long while. Because of this, it became apparent that we would not return on time, but no one cared as we were having fun.
During the entire trip, the staff was very friendly and helpful. They did not treat us like tourists, but instead respected our questions and gave every indication that they were happy to have us on board.
On the way back we had lunch in the cabin. Considering that the galley was tiny and the two crew members were pretty cramped, the food was delicious – and very reasonably priced. We enjoyed lunch as the captain made a b-line for the harbor. Even though he wasted no time, our trip was still about 30 minutes longer than promised.
The trip back went quickly but we did enjoy the view of the coast as we approached. At the end of the trip the crew had a tip bucket at the gangway but there was no pressure to contribute. Nearly everyone did however so maybe bring a few extra bucks.
A few helpful hints – even though it was a very warm day on shore, it was pretty chilly when the boat was moving. Definitely bring a sweatshirt or jacket no matter how hearty you are. Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must. If you wear a hat, make sure it has a string because it gets pretty windy out there. Also, don’t be scared off by the thought of over priced sub par food. The food was very tasty and shockingly cheap. For under $25.00, four of us (including two teenagers)not only had our fill, but we enjoyed every bite.
Our trip was $99.00 per person. That may sound like a lot, but it was worth every penny. All total we saw at least 13 whales, probably 30-40 sea lions and hundreds of dolphins (and that’s a conservative estimate). We would all do it again in a heartbeat. For more information, or to book a reservation, please visit www.condorexpress.com. The website also has a lot of great information about marine mammal migration habits so you can plan your trip based on what you would like to see.