Southern California might not be where you imagine vacationing in pursuit of unique and rare animal encounters, however Santa Barbara is actually home to an array of exciting wildlife. What’s more, there are plentiful ways to observe, visit, touch and even feed them in a variety of settings; from the zoo to open waters, we’ve rounded up some ways to get up close and personal.

Santa Barbara Zoo

The Santa Barbara Zoo is a quaint and charming place to get away on any afternoon. Situated on 30 acres and home to more than 500 animals, it is certainly the most obvious choice for animal-lovers. Take the Zoo Train ride when you arrive to acquaint yourself with the property, and after don’t miss the opportunity to feed some of SB’s beloved giraffes; for just $8 a person you can get up close and personal with those famous purple tongues!

Santa Barbara Zoo. 500 Ninos Drive. 805 962 5339.

Whale Watching

One of the most popular activities for all visitors to Santa Barbara is to book an afternoon whale watching excursion. With companies such as the Condor Express, you can spend the day out on the open water looking for dolphins, gray whales, humpback whales and even the elusive blue whale. SB offers some of the best year-round sighting opportunities in California, but your best bet is during the gray whale migration between December and April.

Condor Express. 301 West Cabrillo Boulevard. 805 719 7778.

Bird Watching

Second only in popularity to whale watching in Santa Barbara is bird watching. While it may seem surprising, SB is home to an active community of birders who get their thrills all over town. One of the top spots to view a variety of shore, land and even migrating birds is the Devereux Slough, located in Goleta at the far end of the UCSB campus. The ample feeding grounds, proximity to the beach and large spectrum of bird species make this the number-one stop for animal lovers, environmentalists and tourists alike.

Devereux Slough. Goleta, CA 93117.

Monarch Butterflies  

Yet another exclusive animal encounter to consider on your next vacation is a trip to visit the Monarch butterflies of Santa Barbara. To view these vibrant creatures in nature, check out the Goleta Butterfly Grove between November and February to see numbers that typically exceed 1,000 butterflies.

Goleta Butterfly Grove. Goleta, CA 93117. 805 961 7500.

Horseback Riding

For the more adventurous traveler, experience Santa Barbara from horseback on a long, leisurely trail ride through the foothills or even as you wine taste in the vineyards! With Captain Jack’s Horseback Wine Tours, visitors begin the day with a drive up the coast to a scenic ranch before embarking on a horseback ride through the Santa Ynez foothills. The tour ends with two tastings at exclusive wineries before heading back into town. If you’re looking for a full day of ranch-style fun, head to the famous Circle Bar B  for trail rides ranging from 1.5 to 4 hours.

Captain Jack’s Tours and Events. 805 564 1819.
Circle Bar B Guest Ranch and Stables. 1800 Refugio Road. 805 968 1113.

Sea Center

Lastly, animal-lovers and anyone with a love for the ocean will be thrilled by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center located at the end of Stearns Wharf. Special exhibits include the new Shark Cove and the Intertidal Wonders, both of which feature touch tanks for those who like to get up close. Also don’t miss the special Jellies & Friends displays as you allow yourself to be captivating by the world under the sea.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. 211 Stearns Wharf. 805 962 2526.