Santa Barbara Channel


The second Whale Heritage Area in the USA

Spanning over 1,800 square miles, the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area is home to a thriving marine ecosystem. The dynamic circulation of ocean currents in the area supports the vibrant communities of phytoplankton, fish, seabirds, and marine mammals found here.

Boasting a vast diversity of cetacean species and huge numbers of individuals, the area can see up to 50,000 dolphins at any one time. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Whale Superhighway’, the Santa Barbara Channel WHA is a vital corridor for the large numbers of whales that migrate along the west coast of North America including gray, humpback, fin and blue whales. This abundance and predictability of cetacean species makes the Channel a hot spot for researchers and responsible tourists alike, with some of the oldest whale watching companies in Southern California being found here.

The Santa Barbara Channel WHA is also an important living laboratory, with research and conservation initiatives in place to ensure the longevity of these natural treasures, while education and community engagement programs aim to raise awareness about the importance of marine conservation.

The Santa Barbara Channel became a designated Whale Heritage Area in October 2023.



    • Region – North America
    • Country – USA
    • Area/State – Southern California
    • Area size – 7500 km2

Cetacean species

      • Blue whale
      • Humpback whale
      • Gray whale
      • Minke whales
      • Common dolphin
      • Bottlenose dolphin

    The Destination


    The Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area is characterised by a unique geography, including a deep basin, ridges, and seamounts and covers an area of over 1,800 square miles. It is known as a ‘channel’ since the body of water is located between two land masses – the southern coast of California and the Northern Channel Islands. These features create oceanic conditions that help the marine life thrive, with wind-driven motion creating upwelling that pushes the nutrient-rich waters from the depths to the surface, nourishing phytoplankton growth and fuelling the entire food web.

    This unique area includes a network of 17 Marine Protected Areas that safeguard nearly 20% of the waters of this WHA by limiting the commercial and recreational activities that can take place there.

    Cetaceans regularly seen

    There have been 27 species of cetaceans recorded in the Santa Barbara Channel, including blue whales, humpback whales, gray whales, minke whales, common dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins. Over 20,000 Pacific gray whales migrate through the Channel every year, alongside several of the other great whale species, on their annual migration from their Arctic feeding grounds to their breeding grounds of Baja California in Mexico, giving the Channels its name as a ‘whale superhighway’.

    Cetacean Heritage

    Whales, dolphins and porpoises have held a deep cultural significance for the local Chumash people for millennia. More than just inhabitants of the local waters, cetaceans are embedded in the Chumash’s rich cultural mythology and traditions, revered as sacred guardians of the ocean.

    Cetaceans and the natural world are celebrated and honoured by the Chumash people through their art, crafts, songs, dance, stories, language, rituals and customs. The cultural significance of cetaceans in the Chumash context extends beyond mere ecological value. It reflects a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of life and, through these forms of storytelling, they have celebrated the abundance of the land and sea, honouring the creatures that inhabit them, commemorating the seasons and paying homage to the animals that provide sustenance.

    Things to do

    • Take a responsible whale watching trip to be in with the chance of spotting one or more of the 27 species of cetaceans recorded in this WHA.
    • Visit the emotive mural depicting the tails of a mother and calf humpback whale in the Ventura area for a photo opportunity and to spread the message of ocean conservation to your friends and family.
    • Visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to explore their diverse range of artifacts relating to the local Chumash peoples cultural connection to cetaceans and the natural environment.
    • Visit the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and its newest permanent exhibit, ‘Whales are Superheroes’, which highlights whales’ powerful and positive influence on the planet.
    • Take a excursion to explore the Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine.

    Achieving Whale Heritage Area status

    Each Whale Heritage Area has a unique route to meeting the Wildlife Heritage Area criteria. Check out some of the highlights from the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area:

    Encouraging Respectful Human-Cetacean Coexistence

    In 2014, collaborative efforts were launched by government agencies, non-profits, and shipping industry stakeholders in what is known as the ‘Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies’ programme. This vessel speed restriction programme aimed to reduce air pollution, ocean noise, and ship strikes on endangered whales in the Santa Barbara Channel by incentivising large vessels to slow their speed to 10 knots or less from the months of May through to December. Participation has increased steadily since the launch which is being reflected in the resulting impact: an estimated 44% reduction in ship strike risks to cetaceans for those vessels participating and 27% reduction in air pollutants.

    Whale watching guidelines are adopted by operators in the area, to maintain responsible and sustainable tourism activities. These guidelines include maintaining a safe distance from whales to avoid disturbance while still allowing for enjoyable viewing experiences. Compliance is monitored by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a federal agency responsible for protecting whales and dolphins under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

    The acoustic environment is also monitored by the Whale Safe programme, which helps assess the impact of human activities, such as underwater noise pollution, on whale populations. Continuous acoustic monitoring is used to study ambient noise levels and track whale vocalisations, allowing for better management strategies to be initiated.

    Celebrating Cetaceans

    The importance of cetaceans to the local area can be seen throughout the Santa Barbara Whale Heritage Area. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is a destination for anyone intrigued by the historical interactions between the local Chumash people and cetaceans, as well as its depiction in their art and culture. The museum hosts a diverse collection of artifacts that celebrates this cultural connection. A particularly poignant mural in Ventura captures the local connection to cetaceans, depicting the tails of a mother and calf humpback whale. The outline of the tails are filled with the word ‘Love’ while an overarching message reads ‘Imagine a world without them’.

    Local schools in the area are actively involved in projects that celebrate their local marine mammals through the arts. A very special project was undertaken by two schools in the area in January 2023. During this time, their mascot was brought to life in a ‘living portrait’ by 700 students and staff moving together on a field to create the image of a breaching humpback whale. This event carried a significant message regarding the escalating CO2 levels worldwide and the collective responsibility that both adults and children bear in ensuring the health and sustainability of our oceans and planet.

    Working Towards Sustainability

    Approximately 21% of the waters in the Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and 15% of the waters along the Santa Barbara, Ventura coast, and down to the Mexican border, are designated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). These MPAs safeguard key ecosystems and provide a safe haven for various species, including those listed as endangered and have been over harvested in the past. In addition, collaborative efforts between various agencies and organisations in the area have focused on conservation and restoration of the local environment. Initiatives include removing invasive species, replanting vegetation, and improving water quality.

    The local fishing community works with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop, implement, and enforce sustainable fishing practices such as catch limits, selective fishing techniques and discouraging destructive fishing methods. These sustainability initiatives go towards ensuring that the marine ecosystem is not only protected but can support economic sustainability through the thriving commercial and recreational fishing industries.

    Developing Research, Education and Awareness Programmes

    Ongoing research and education initiatives in the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area play a pivotal role in advancing our understanding of whale populations, migration patterns, and behaviours as well as enhancing environmental awareness and stewardship amongst the public. Collaboration amongst scientists, researchers, and environmental organisations has facilitated the assessment of the health and status of the ocean habitats in the Santa Barbara Channel for decades, enabling informed decisions to be made to protect the ecosystems found here.

    Grassroots organisations, such as the Santa Barbara Channelkeepers, and volunteer programmes like the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps (CINC) support citizen science initiatives that provide valuable data gathering and public awareness raising opportunities in the area. CINC volunteers are trained to educate the public on whale watch tours, wildlife excursions, island hikes and at community events. CINC volunteers also play a vital role in supporting NOAA and partner researchers with citizen science recording marine mammal sightings data and photo-ID of blue, humpback, fin, gray and killer whales.

    Local organisations support research, education and outreach through various means. The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum’s outreach program, ‘Whales are Superheroes! Saving the Planet one CO2 Molecule at a Time’, led by local marine biologists/naturalists, combines interactive lessons on whales, their ecological role in climate change mitigation, and whale-themed art instruction to inspire environmental consciousness.

    Key Information

    Who is leading the process locally?

    The Steering Committee members are:

    • Jean-Michel Cousteau (Ocean Futures Society)
    • Holly Lohuis (Ocean Futures Society, Santa Barbara Maritime Museum & Island Packers)
    • Hiroko Benko (Condor Express)
    • Alex Brodie (Island Packers)
    • Greg Gorga (Santa Barbara Maritime Museum)
    • Luke Swetland (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)
    • Kathy Janega-Dykes (Visit Santa Barbara)
    • Callie Leiphardt (Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, University of California, Santa Barbara)
    • Luisa Hyatt (Rincon Brewery- 3 restaurants in Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Ventura)
    • Laurie VanStee (Island Packers)
    • Jamie Diamond (Santa Barbara Landing)
    • Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary staff- Advisors
    • Julie Tumamait Stenslie- Chumash Elder- Advisor

    Actions and Recommendations

    There are no further recommendations from the Independent Review Panel (IRP).

    Images credits: First header (Adam Ernster); Second header (OC Gonzalez via Unsplash); “Things to do” image (Santa Barbara Maritime Museum); Third header (Adam Ernster); Fourth header (OC Gonzalez via Unsplash); “Who is leading the process locally” image (Adam Ernster).  Gallery: First (humpback whale, Adam Ernster); Second (coastline, Jake Grella via Unsplash​); Third (Island Packers whale watching, Kevin Bailey); Fourth (Risso’s dolphins, Luke Dutton, Island Packers); Fifth (common dolphin, Guido Hofmann via Unsplash​).