Whales and butterflies are the real celebrities in Santa Barbara (2024)

ByNorie Quintos

Published February 7, 2024

In Santa Barbara, California, the celebrities who live here—Harry and Meghan, Oprah, Gwyneth—aren’t the ones followed and fawned over. Whales, monarch butterflies, and a diversity of other wildlife draw fans who go on whale-watching cruises and e-bike tours, participate in beach cleanups, and volunteer for annual butterfly counts.

With its 300-plus sunny days a year, and with coastal breezes scented with eucalyptus and sage, this “American Riviera” is firmly oriented to the outdoors and nature. Patio dining is a year-round affair. Offices accommodate surfboards, bikes, and dogs, and offer flexible hours and four-day weeks.

Offshore, the planet’s largest mammals come to feed in the Santa Barbara Channel, which was recently named a Whale Heritage Site. The designation honors the region’s commitment to conservation, research, education, and responsible tourism.

(Whale watching is booming. Here’s how to do it responsibly.)

Within the region’s coastal groves, migrating butterflies are once again stopping to rest and feed, signaling a hopeful return from the brink of extinction. Santa Barbara County holds the record for the highest count of western monarch butterflies along the California coast.

In this tourist destination, unlike in so many others, nature appears to be gaining the upper hand.

Whale superhighway

Marine biologist Holly Lohuis likes to talk poop to get children and adults to understand the key role whales play in sustaining the planet. She’s standing in front of the new “Whales are Superheroes!” exhibit at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. “Their feces fertilize microscopic algae, which form part of the cycle that enhances the air we breathe, and cools the planet.”

Lohuis, along with Hiroku Benko, owner of the Condor Express, a whale-watching boat designed without metal propellers, are co-directors of the recently named Santa Barbara Whale Heritage Site. The roughly 100-by-25-mile swath includes the Santa Barbara Channel, Channel Islands National Park, and their watersheds. Here, where currents whirl and nutrients swirl, a smorgasbord is whipped up for more than 25 resident and visiting species of cetaceans, including some 20,000 Pacific gray whales.

(Explore 13,000 years of human history on this remote California island.)

It is also one of the most reliable places to see the world’s largest animal. “There are about 10,000 blue whales left in the world,” says local wildlife photographer Adam Ernster. “We see a fifth of that critically endangered population come through here.”

While the new designation doesn’t confer additional protection, it recognizes a model in which conservation proponents, community residents, and commercial interests are allies rather than antagonists. Responsible whale-watching tour operators, for example, convert visitors into advocates and generate revenue to support continued conservation. In addition, boats scoop up plastic, help conduct research, and monitor the health of the ocean.

Butterfly rest stop

Like whales in general, butterflies are in decline. Some, like the monarch butterfly, whose western variety winters in the forested groves along the California coast, are at risk of extinction.

Four years ago, the butterfly count in the Goleta Butterfly Preserve, between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific Ocean, had plunged to a shocking 10 individuals. But the monarchs have made a stunning comeback. The 2022-2023 season tallied more than 12,000, and the current season has already more than doubled that number.

According to naturalist Steven Scruggs of the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, in nearby Goleta, it remains unclear if the trend will continue, but, “it’s a reason to hope we can still save the western monarch migration.” As part of its Ambassadors of the Environment program, the hotel offers e-bike tours to the grove. Supported by volunteers and residents, the city of Goleta is implementing the first phase of a plan to better manage its 60 acres of butterfly habitat, including the planting of thousands of native plants and trees.

(See monarch butterflies in all their glory on this California road trip.)

Not far away, the 70-acre Douglas Family Preserve is another example of the community (including actor Michael Douglas) rallying around environmental causes, this time to save the largest coastal open space within city limits from development. From the mesa above Arroyo Burro Beach, the views of the Channel and the islands beyond it—which might otherwise have been reserved for the moneyed few—are spectacular and free for all. The waters are quiet on this winter day, though the first waves of gray whales have already begun their journey from Alaska and will soon be coming through, joining resident humpbacks and dolphins, and, in the summer, blue whales.

“Whales and butterflies tell a great story of how everything is connected in nature,” says Lohuis. “And the catastrophic impact when you remove one part of that amazing web of life.”

What to know

Getting around: BCycle is the city’s shared e-bike program.

Where to dine and drink: Caruso’s restaurant in Montecito, with its commitment to sustainable seafood and local sourcing, has both a Michelin star and a Michelin Green star. Santa Barbara has some of the country’s first organic, biodynamic, and regenerative vineyards, including Ampelos and Riverbench. Downtown, local brewery Night Lizard names all its craft beers after endangered species (Blue Whale cream ale, anyone?). Rincon Brewery has created a special edition Cetaceans beer, a dry-hopped Märzen lager.

Whale-watching: Condor Express offers tours lasting several hours in Channel waters. In addition to whales (including orcas, humpbacks, and blues), visitors might spot dolphins, sea lions, and myriad sea birds.

Based in Alexandria, Virginia, Norie Quintos is a frequent contributor to National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram.

Whales and butterflies are the real celebrities in Santa Barbara (2024)
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