California has a truly astonishing amount of wildlife stretching across its near 164,000 square miles— from northern foggy mountains to southern desert plateaus, from sunshiny coasts to alpine peaks. Our state’s massive size would intimidate even the most motivated of wildlife enthusiasts, but luckily, we know the perfect spot to get a good look at some of California’s most unique flora and fauna.

Underneath its charming seaside town appearance, Morro Bay is absolutely teeming with wildlife— majestic whales cresting atop white waves, birds gliding on the coastal breeze, lizards sunbathing on stones radiating with warmth. Nature-lovers from all over flock to Morro Bay for not only its outdoor activities and year-round temperate climate, but also for the sheer variety of wildlife that call this place home. 

But where do you even start if you’re seeking a wildlife expedition? Don’t fret, adventurer— here’s our complete guide to seeing some of the best wildlife in California. For more trip ideas and inspiration, be sure to check out the rest of the Morro Bay blog!

Part 1: Where to GoWhere to go

When you set foot in Morro Bay, you can instantly understand why such a wide variety of creatures has decided to call this place home— the land feels healthy, strong, thrumming with life. Damp sea air breathes new life into skin and lungs (no, really!). Waves swell and crash and recede in an infinite dance. Even a short walk down the streets of Morro Bay can yield a one-in-a-lifetime glimpse of wildlife.

And if you want to see wildlife, you absolutely cannot go wrong with a visit to the Morro Bay National Estuary, a site which sprawls over 2,300 acres from Morro Bay to Los Osos. The Estuary Program works to protect and restore the bay and its watershed, an area of tremendous ecological importance for the creatures who reside there. Animals rely on the area’s sheltered waters for habitat, fishermen catch fish who most likely spent part of their life living in the estuary, and, perhaps most famously, Morro Bay is a huge stop-over point for migratory birds cruising on the Pacific Flyway, the bird super highway used to travel from the Arctic to South America during migration periods.

Another must-see wildlife spot is Morro Bay State Park, the grounds of which cover everything from a marina and 18-hole public golf course, to Morro Rock itself. The park contains pristine saltwater marsh, lagoon, and natural bay habitat, and plenty of opportunity to dive into each one. If you feel like surrounding yourself in nature, you can also reserve one of the 135 available campsites and stay the night. The park is famous for its thriving bird population, as well as its Museum of Natural History, which offers activities like nature walks, fascinating exhibits, lectures, videos, tours, special events, and more!

Part 2: What to See

Marine mammals

If you’re a lover of wildlife, you’re probably dying to know which kinds of amazing critters you can find here in Morro Bay. From the depths of the bay itself, to the tops of the towering live oaks and Monterey pines, you’ll find a staggering number of species who call this place home. Some of the best wildlife viewing in California awaits you around every corner of the area, and if you’re lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of some of the following creatures:

Under the Surface

Morro Bay is the quintessential fishing village— fishing boats covered in algae bump gently across well-worn docks, the faint scent of seafood sizzling on a grill drifts down from the Embarcadero. Unsurprisingly, fish are a big deal here. We have fantastic pier and shore fishing if you feel like casting your own line (don’t forget to adhere to state regulations!), but if you just feel like observing these slippery little critters, you can find them in many of the creeks throughout the Morro Bay National Estuary. Species include bay pipefish, staghorn sculpin, tomsmelt, dwarf perch, pacific sanddab, and round stingray! Many of these species call the Morro Bay Estuary home for its unique natural habitat that is a mix of both fresh and saltwater.

Tidal mudflats may appear unassuming, but a closer look reveals a whole world of life teeming within. Waves rush into the ocean’s intertidal zones during high tide, leaving behind frothy seawater trapped in rocky indentations, slopes, and cracks. Any creatures riding the waves at high tide gets trapped in these tidal pools, giving us an inside look into a gorgeous and thriving underwater ecosystem. Take a peek into Morro Bay’s tide pools and you’ll see a variety of invertebrates, including anemones, starfish, snails, crabs, and more! Have an even more active experience by grabbing a paddleboard or kayak from one of the nearby rental companies and taking to the waters.

Marine Mammals

Morro Bay has an active population of sea otters all year long— even better, they stick close to shore, making them easy to spot! Some of the most popular places to spot these cute critters include South T-Pier, along the Harbor Walk, and next to Target Rock. We know you’re a conscientious wildlife lover, but just in case: please don’t disturb the otters while you observe them— if they swim away on your approach, you might be a little too close. Even sea otters need personal space! You can find these sea-lebrities year-round, but peak pupping season is often between October and January, and in March and April.  

If you’re looking for a “larger than life” wildlife experience, whale watching is the way to go. You can see different species at different times of the year: Gray Whales in December - April, Humpbacks in April - December, and Blue Whales in June - October. These majestic creatures are sometimes spotted from Morro Bay’s shores, but the best vantage point is undoubtedly aboard one of the various Whale Watching Tours offered in the bay. Not only will you enjoy the amazing sight of breaching whales, but also gorgeous panoramic views of the bay and Pacific Ocean.

In the Sky

For wildlife with wings, Morro Bay is a vital stopping point on the migration path. Monarch butterflies fly thousands of miles during their journey, and are known to cluster in the Morro Bay State Park eucalyptus groves for warmth and a place to rest or roost. Visit between December and March if you want the best chance to catch a glimpse of these gorgeous winged creatures.

Not to brag, but as a Globally Important Bird Area and a Designated State and National Estuary, Morro Bay knows a thing or two about birds. Every year our city is even home to the Morro Bay Bird Festival, a celebration of our area’s birds and other wildlife that seeks to promote an understanding and appreciation of these amazing creatures. Much like butterflies, many sea and shore birds make a stop at Morro Bay during their migration. Thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds forage on the waters, and a glance out to the bay will always reveal a bird or two gliding across the sky. Morro Bay’s bird habitat can be put into four categories: shallow open water of the bay, highly productive saltmarshes, patches of woodland, and finally, dwarf Coast Live Oak woodland. Birds in these areas include ferruginous hawks, golden eagles, grasshopper sparrows, short-eared owls, snowy plovers, long-billed curlews, peregrine falcons, swainson’s thrush, and more!