In Santa Barbara, watching sea life cavorting in the surf is part of daily life. From shore you can spot seals and sea lions bobbing in the waves, and find families of dolphins playing and feeding out at sea. On rare occasions I even have seen the fins and flippers of elusive whales flop out of the deep. You never know when one of these creatures will pop above surface. It always is a welcome show.

For years I’ve wanted to experience Santa Barbara’s dazzling, aquatic wildlife up close. So, on a recent trip, I booked a day tour with The Condor Express, a local whale-watching company that has plied local waters for more than 30 years.

On a Friday morning in November 2014, I met the crew at Santa Barbara Harbor, just before 10 a.m. The Condor Express ship is optimized for whale watching. It is a two-story boat with bench seating on an open roof deck and cushioned booths indoors on the bottom level. In the bow and on all the sides of the boat, there is space along the railings to catch great views.

As we plowed out to sea, heading straight for the Channel Islands, the placid water sparkled in the sun. An arresting vista of green mountains and the city of Santa Barbara lay on the horizon behind us. My fellow tour goers and I sat in anticipation, taking in all the views and searching the horizon for tails and spouts.

Viewfinder Tip: Nearly 30 different kinds of whales and dolphins migrate through Santa Barbara’s waters, making whale-watching a year-round activity.

Commonly, blue whales, minke whales, humpback whales, gray whales, and Orcas (a.k.a. killer whales) are spotted in the Santa Barbara Channel. In November, the whale most likely to be found is the humpback.

Our plan for the day was to search those areas in which the whales usually feed on large schools of anchovies and other small fish. On our way out to sea we passed buoys covered by sea lions, saw massive pelicans hunting for food, and got an up-close look up at the oil rigs that dot the Santa Barbara coast.

It wasn’t until an hour into the voyage that we caught our first glimpse of whales. We happened upon a pair of humpbacks engaging in an activity known as cooperative feeding. This activity amounts to a form of synchronized swimming to corral the fish into whales’ mouths. We watched patiently as the animals repeated the ritual of coming up for breaths and flicking their shiny tails into the air before disappearing deep into the water below.

Within minutes of our first whale spotting, an additional pair of humpbacks became visible only 200 feet away. Later, we found ourselves in the middle of pod of hundreds of dolphins. As the dolphins jumped and played in the wake of our vessel, it seemed as if they were racing us. It was magical.

Humpback whales feeding off the Santa Barbara coast

Finally after another hour on the water, we came upon a group of at least six humpbacks and one blue whale nearby. The blue whale was particularly exciting; that species holds the distinction of being the largest animals on Earth.

Slowly, as not to disturb these massive and beautiful creatures, we inched toward a neutral position between them. There were whales in all directions, resting on the surface, spouting, and diving deep, sending their flukes (tails) high into the air. As we watched it became apparent there were actually more than 10 total animals in the vicinity of our boat. It was exhilarating.

Captain Dave wanted to get a closer look at the blue whale. We waited for its telltale high spout to figure out where in the water it was swimming, then puttered over toward it. Like the others, the blue whale dove and surfaced as it snacked; each time it dove, we spotted a shimmering turquoise could be seen along his back.

All told, my day on the water near these magnificent animals stirred excitement in my soul. Whale-watching definitely requires patience, as you never really know where or when the animals will appear. Still, there is no better way to connect with the natural beauty of California than by seeing these animals in their natural habitats.

How do you like to explore the outdoors on vacation?