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Tomales Bay Kayaking: Everything You Need to Know

Tomales Bay is a beautiful destination for kayaking

Seal pups, sea birds, and nearly 15 miles of protected shoreline – it doesn’t get much better than kayaking in Tomales Bay. 

This beautiful destination is located within Point Reyes National Seashore, which offers more than 100 square miles of unspoiled wilderness to the delight of nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Experiencing Point Reyes by kayak allows paddlers to take in unique views of the shoreline, experience seasonal bioluminescence, and get closer to some of the majestic wildlife that call this area home. However, due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, kayaking in Tomales Bay requires experience and common sense preparation. Below we’ll walk you through everything you should know before you set out for a Tomales Bay kayaking adventure.


Best Time of Year to Kayak in Tomales Bay

Because of its proximity to the ocean and shallow water in large swaths of the bay, wind is a major factor in considering when to kayak Tomales Bay. The best overall time frame for paddling this area of Point Reyes National Seashore is from August through November. September specifically marks when the songbirds arrive and reach peak activity levels. Other seasons to consider include winter, which is extraordinary due to the herring spawn in re-established seagrass beds, less wind, and lots of wildlife activity as well as fewer crowds. June and July bring the herring spawn but aren’t the most paddler-friendly months due to high winds.


What to Wear for Tomales Bay Kayaking

The water in Tomales Bay ranges from around 52-60 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, so protection from drips while paddling is crucial in colder months. As with any active outdoor activity, non-cotton layers, including performance fabrics and merino wool are your best option, because they wick moisture and regulate body temperature best. A waterproof jacket and pants are helpful in cooler months when staying dry is paramount. Gloves are optional, but are essential in winter and even during nighttime tours when the air temperature drops on the water. Sunscreen, sunglasses, or a hat are advisable year-round, due to UV rays reflecting off the surface of the bay. Finally, waterproof shoes or sandals are recommended, as well as any appropriate safety gear recommended or required by your tour guide or within the park. 


What Kinds of Wildlife Live in Tomales Bay?

Tomales Bay is often considered the “Ocean’s Garden” due to the proliferation of wildlife both above and below the surface of the water. Leopard sharks and large jellyfish are abundant in Tomales Bay and can be seen often when standing up on a paddle board. The reintroduction of seagrass has improved the habitat, helping to sustain and nurture a whole range of species in the Bay including herring and more frequent reports of native sea otter! Harbor seals are prevalent throughout Point Reyes National Seashore and can be found on Hog Island and toward the mouth of Tomales Bay.  It’s important to note that Tomales Bay kayakers must stay 300 feet from Hog Island to protect wildlife habitats.

Other species that can be seen while kayaking in Tomales Bay include a tremendous amount of resident and migratory birds. The migratory bird action is best in July and August. September is the peak migration for songbirds. October - February is when ducks are wintering. Species include Surf Scoter (which looks like Daffy Duck), Bufflehead ducks, and Coots to name a few of the more exotic waterfowl. Shorebirds include Western Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, Sandpipers, Yellow Legs, Long-billed Curlews, and Avocets. Resident birds such as Double-Breasted Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, White Pelicans, Great Blue Herons, and Egrets can also be found in Tomales Bay. 

Below the water, herring are repopulating thanks to the presence of seagrass and they spawn in winter once salinity dips from fresh winter rain. By July, particularly during nighttime bioluminescent tours be prepared for these fish to light up the ocean with tracers of fluorescent light as they accelerate away from the hull of your kayak. Occasionally they will jump out of the water and into your boat! The proliferation of herring during these months leads to some fun wildlife experiences including watching fish dive bomb into the water to snatch fish and sometimes even having a fish jump into your boat. Bat rays and halibut are also abundant in Tomales Bay.


Are Kayaking Tours Available in Tomales Bay?

Several companies offer kayaking tours in Tomales Bay. In fact, a guide is advisable year-round, particularly for inexperienced kayakers. Because of the coastal influence on the bay, large tides and substantial wind are always a possibility, and add to that a rocky shoreline with differing depths and channels and you have an area that can quickly produce tricky conditions. Furthermore, an experienced guide will help make the most of your time and have the best experience by knowing which routes should be taken at what time and choosing the best launch location. 

Insider Tip:  Do not plan on GPS working in Tomales Bay, it is hit & miss depending on your cell network as is cell phone service in general.  Always bring a compass and learn how to use it prior to launch. 


Is it Safe to Swim in Tomales Bay? 

Swimming is allowed and it is safe to swim in Tomales Bay but there are several things to be aware of before you dive in. First, you must stay at least 300 feet from Hog Island where harbor seals and Brown Pelicans reside.  It is okay to paddle closer to the west shore of Hog Island if animals are not present.  They often take residence on the north and east sides of the sandy spit. Second, be cautious of the channel between Nick’s Cove and Hog Island. The water is shallow in this area and deepens into a “trough” and then becomes shallow again as you approach Hog Island. The water moves more quickly in the deep trough and you can experience wind waves, particularly if the wind and tide are moving in opposite directions. Be particularly cautious of south/southwest winds. Afternoons are consistently the windiest time of day, and since the prevailing wind is NW, the west shore of Tomales Bay offers the most protection for swimming and boating. 

Finally, the water is cold in the deeper channels and warms up in the shallow coves where temperatures can reach 60 degrees during late summer. Use common sense precautions for both.


Bioluminescence Kayaking in Tomales Bay

What Causes Bioluminescence in Tomales Bay? 

The marine bioluminescence, or the “Northern Lights of the Sea,” in Tomales Bay, California, is primarily caused by tiny organisms known as dinoflagellates. These single-celled creatures emit a glow when disturbed or agitated. Bioluminescent events commonly follow "red tides" which are large algae blooms. They can occur year-round but are most prominent in the summer months. The phenomenon is best observed during the dark of a still, moonless night. In Tomales Bay, this includes select nights from August through November, coinciding with neap tides. 

What are Neap Tides?

Neap tides, sometimes spelled as "neep tides," are a type of tide that occurs when the gravitational forces of the Sun and the Moon are perpendicular to one another with respect to the Earth. This typically happens twice a month, during the first and third quarter moon phases. During neap tides, the difference between high and low tide is at its smallest, resulting in less extreme tidal conditions. This is because the gravitational pull of the Sun partially cancels out the gravitational pull of the Moon, leading to lower high tides and higher low tides compared to other times in the lunar cycle.

Is a Tour or Permit Required for Night Kayaking in Tomales Bay?

While permits are not required, guides are recommended for kayaking in Tomales Bay at any time of day or night, but especially to experience bioluminescence. It is a coastal kayaking experience that requires getting out on the water on the darkest nights from August through November and for safety as well as success, a tour is the best way to experience it. An experienced guide will track the microclimates and weather conditions very closely and know how to avoid strong winds and thick fog which can quickly make what should be an exciting outing a very stressful one. 

Tours typically depart around sunset and safely guide groups, often in tandem kayaks, to the areas within Tomales Bay that are home to the bioluminescent algae. The movement of paddles in the water and boats along the water causes the magic to come to life. A red headlamp is needed for paddlers to see once the sun has set and not disrupt the enchanting glow from the water. 


Where to Kayak In Tomales Bay?

Nick’s Cove to Hog Island 

This area offers an abundance of wildlife and an elusive history. It is home to a huge colony of double-breasted cormorants that sound like hogs at night during the mating season. Half bird, half fish these creatures relish in the abundance of herring and live a wonderful life with a colony of Brown Pelicans and harbor seals. Just 1.5 miles round trip from Nick’s Cove.

Inverness/Chicken Ranch Beach to Heart’s Desire Beach

Inverness is a beautiful sandstone coastline that stretches to Heart’s Desire. This area is the best launch location in the southern end of the bay. Because of prevailing wind, it’s usually best to depart in the morning and have the winds at your back on the return trip. Parking can be challenging at Chicken Ranch Beach on the weekends.

Heart’s Desire Beach to Tomales Beach

If launching at Heart’s Desire you generally want to paddle north and then ride the tide back to Heart’s Desire assuming that the normal NW prevailing wind begins in the early afternoon. Heart’s Desire Beach is small and crowded on weekends, making parking difficult.


For all Tomales Bay kayaking, keep in mind that the wind begins at noon and gusts between 2-6 pm, and the area is known for prevailing northwest winds. Wherever you launch from or head towards, you’ll want to have the wind at your back on the return paddle. When you get a SW wind, because of the orientation of the bay, those winds can be more problematic since wind accelerates on the open water. Always check the tide and wind direction before you launch!


Final Thoughts on Kayaking in Tomales Bay

Whether you’re seeking up-close encounters with playful otters or the enchanting dance of the bioluminescence beneath a starlit sky, kayaking in Tamales Bay is a delightful adventure. These tips will help you set out both confident and prepared – regardless of whether you are adventuring on your own or with a tour.  Do not plan on GPS working in Tomales Bay, it is hit & miss depending on your cell network as is cell phone service in general.  Bring a compass and learn how to use it before launch. 

At Napa Valley Paddle, we offer bioluminescent kayaking tours from Nick’s Cove and daytime trips in Drake’s Estero on select dates from July through December to immerse guests in the magical experience of having bioluminescent waters below, and a sky full of stars above. We provide full instructions, tandem kayaks, or the option for a 4-person whaleboat with a guide, plus paddles and life jackets. It’s an unforgettable way to experience Tomales Bay. For details, dates, and pricing, visit our booking page.