Whale watching in San Diego, California, is possible nearly year-round due to different whale species migratory patterns. Seeing these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat is a one-of-a-kind experience that everyone should enjoy at least once.
The best way is by booking one of the many fun whale watching tours in San Diego. The tour operators I like are experts on finding the best views of whales feeding, socializing, and playing. I will also cover the best times to go, what to bring whale watching, and where to possibly spot whales from the shore.
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TIPLook for San Diego whale watching tours with sighting guarantees. Many companies will take guests out again for free if certain species of whales aren’t spotted during the trip.
Why Whale Watch in San Diego?
When you’re booking San Diego tours or looking for things to do in San Diego with kids, definitely include taking a whale watching tour on your list. It’s one of our most popular outdoor activities, especially during the winter and early spring months.
San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline makes it one of the best places to go whale watching in California. It’s also home to one of the largest protected marine sanctuaries in Southern California, and the rich environment attracts lots of marine mammals. We’re along the migration path of various whales that you’ll want to see.
Gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja California in the winter and spring, blue whales feed off the San Diego coast in summer, and other species like humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, pilot whales make appearances here, too.
On a two-hour whale-watching cruise, you’ll usually see whales and dolphins. The latter includes common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Risso dolphins, and Pacific white-sided dolphins, too.
The Best Time for Whale Watching in San Diego
The best time to take whale watching tours in San Diego is between mid-December and April during gray whale migration season. This is when over 20,000 gray whales travel from Alaska to warmer water in Baja California, Mexico to give birth. However, this isn’t the only time to see whales in San Diego and when to go depends largely on the types of whales you want to see most. In essence, there are two main whale watching seasons.
As mentioned above, during the winter and spring, thousands of gray whales travel 6,000 miles down the coastline on their way to Mexico’s warm calving grounds. If you are whale watching in late April or May, you might even be lucky enough to spot moms with their calves!
In the summer and fall, the magnificent blue whale (the largest animal to have ever existed) passes by San Diego as part of the annual breeding and feeding migration. These large whales migrate further offshore so you’ll need to go out on a cruise to see them.
Fin whales (which are only slightly smaller than blue whales) can be spotted near San Diego year-round, though you’re more likely to encounter them November through March.
Friendly humpback whales can be seen off the coast of San Diego throughout the year. This species is popular with whale watchers for their famous breaching behavior.
You’ll also spot dolphins, harbor seals, and California sea lions on most tours as you make your way in and out of the harbor. You might see a bonus orca or two, as well, but these whale sightings are rare.
The best time to go whale watching in San Diego may also depend on weather conditions. We do enjoy pretty much year-round sunshine, and even a little rain may not impact your tour. Our top-notch tour operators will cancel a tour if they deem conditions unsafe. The best time of day to go whale watching is in the morning.
The tours I am about to mention not only (hopefully) provide the opportunity for travelers to get up close and personal with a whale but will also take you by famous landmarks.
Recommended San Diego Whale Watching Tours
The side benefit to going whale watching in San Diego, CA is that you’ll also do some ancillary sightseeing as you sail along the San Diego Bay, pass Coronado or Point Loma, watch pelicans and gulls sail overhead, and then some (just like you would on a harbor cruise) until you reach the Pacific Ocean.
It can be a gorgeous and peaceful half-day out on the water. Whale watching excursions are usually very respectful of whales and other marine animals. You need to make sure that your tour departs from San Diego as some Orange County tours (an hour or more away) market to San Diego tourists.
The tour operators below are operating with enhanced health and safety measures in place that include increase sanitation, reduced capacity, proper distancing, and mask requirements.
Flagship Cruises & Events
Departure location: Downtown San Diego
Flagship Cruises & Events‘ twice-daily whale watching cruises happen during the gray whale migration roughly between early December and mid-April. Naturalists from Birch Aquarium at Scripps join the tours, providing guests with additional insight into our ocean and marine life.
A snack bar serves refreshments include hot dogs, sandwiches, chips, soda, alcoholic beverages, and more. Their Whale Tail Guarantee means that you may join another tour for free if you don’t spot a whale during your tour.
They also have other San Diego harbor cruises that you may want to check-out and also operate the Coronado Ferry.
Hornblower Cruises & Events
Departure location: Downtown San Diego
An expert captain and naturalists from the San Diego Natural History Museum narrate winter gray whale and summer blue whale watching cruises. They consider this the most comfortable yacht in San Diego due to stabilizers that help prevent motion sickness, air-conditioned interiors, and a fully stocked snack bar and full beverage bar. This boat also offers the largest open-air sun deck in San Diego.
Their Whale Check guarantee means that if you don’t spot a whale, you’ll be able to join another tour for free.
Next Level Sailing’s Yacht America
Departure location: Shelter Island
Go gray whale or blue whale watching in San Diego on the 139-foot Yacht America, a replica of the yacht that won the historic Royal Yacht Squadron’s 100 Guinea Cup race in 1851. Water, soda, chips, and granola bars are provided, but you can bring your own food and drinks (except red wine).
Next Level Sailing offers the only “no seasickness guarantee” globally and boasts high whale spotting rates. They also guarantee you’ll see a while, or they’ll gladly have you onboard one of their whale watching tours again for free.
Everyday California Whale Watching Kayak Tour
Departure location: La Jolla
One of the best things to do in La Jolla is head out on a kayak tour of the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. And between about December 1 and March 1 (depending on sightings), you can book a La Jolla whale watching kayak tour where guides will take you about 2 miles offshore to spot gray whales.
(I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch huge gray whales swimming close by as you paddle out in the Pacific Ocean.)
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San Diego Whale Watch
Departure location: Mission Bay
You have a variety of cruise options with San Diego Whale Watch that depart year-round. Their Whale Guarantee means that if you don’t see a dolphin or whale on your trip, your next trip is free. They offer 2-3 hour group cruises and sunset cruises in addition to private outings. The Privateer boat is equipped with indoor seating and open viewing spaces on the upper and lower decks.
What to Bring on Whale Watching Tours
What to bring on whale watching tours in San Diego includes the following packing list:
- Layers such as a light jacket or sweatshirt
- Hat or visor for sun protection
- Seasickness aids, if prone to seasickness
- Bottled water and snacks (if not sold onboard)
- Closed-toed shoes with a good grip like rubber soles
- Portable battery charger for smartphones
- Gloves, scarf, or warm hat in winter months
- Travel games (without many pieces) or entertainment for younger kids
- A bag or backpack that can be zippered closed to carry items in
Let me get into why I recommend the items above. The weather in San Diego is warm and mild, and the sea off the coast tends to be calm for most of the year. However, temperatures on the water can be about 10-15 degrees cooler than on land. Even during the summer, It’s a good idea to carry a light jacket or a sweatshirt because the marine layer can make for cool mornings.
There’s always a chance that it will get breezy, a bit chilly, or even drizzly when you’re out on the water — especially during the winter months. This is why layers are important.
Sunscreen and sun protection is always a must, given the near-constant sunshine in San Diego. The water reflects sunshine to make it even more powerful when out on the water.
Make sure your phone or camera is fully charged and bring an extra battery pack. A zoom lens is advisable. If you have binoculars, pack those, too, or rent a pair on the boat if they’re available.
If you tend to get seasick, bring some seasickness aids just in case. And, of course don’t forget your tour tickets.
Where to See Whales from Land
If there’s no time in your itinerary to book a whale watching experience or you’re not a fan of boating in open waters, you may still be able to spot some whales from the shore — if you’re lucky. Simply keep an eye out while you’re touring these spots, which are popular San Diego tourist attractions anyway.
Carry a pair of travel binoculars with you to take a closer look! The best times of the year to spot whales from land is mid-January to February when the gray whales are traveling south closer to shore.
One well-loved spot for shoreline whale watching in San Diego is actually La Jolla. Try scanning the waters near Ellen Browning Scripps Park above La Jolla Cove, from the cliffs of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and Torrey Pines Gliderport, or from the viewing deck at Birch Aquarium’s Tide Pool Plaza.
Cabrillo National Monument
It’s also possible to spot whales from land at Cabrillo National Monument, thanks to its location atop cliffs with panoramic Pacific Ocean views. Kelp Forest Overlook (otherwise known as Whale Watch Overlook) and Old Point Loma Lighthouse are the best spots.
Every year in January or February the National Park hosts a Whale Watch Weekend and Intertidal Festival with films, lectures, kids’ activities, and more in celebration of migration season. A limited amount of binoculars are usually available for checkout at the Visitor Center with a photo ID.
Other Beach Overlooks
You can also try to spot whales from popular beach overlooks like Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach and Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach.
Just keep in mind that whale watching tours often whale spotters and the boats can move around the open waters along the California coastline to find roving pods.
When you watch for whales from the shore, you may or may not spot any on a given day. It takes patience but I mention it because you never know. If you happen to be near the water during gray whale migration season, keep an eye out.
What to Look For When Whale Watching
Now that you know which tours to take and where to go to see whales from land, here’s what you actually need to look for.
The Blow or Spout
When whales exhale warm air from their lungs through their blowhole into cooler ocean air, it creates a white-looking spout that can reach up to 15′ high. This is the easiest thing to see from land and is often mistaken as water.
The Tail (or Flukes)
When whales dive, they lift sometimes lift their tails above the ocean’s surface. The tail has two lobes which are called flukes.
Knuckled Back and Footprint
After a whale surfaces to blow out air (which you may have seen) you may see its knuckled back rise and fall as it dives back into the water. Once it submerges you’ll see a calm area of water called a footprint.
Breach and Splash
Humpback whales tend to breach more than other whales. It’s when they use their tails to propel nearly their entire bodies out of the water. And, of course, an enormous splash follows. Gray whales are known to breach, too.
Next, Look Ahead
If you see any of the above behaviors, where to look next depends on when in the migration season you’re at. Look south if it’s gray whale season and they’re heading to Mexico, for example.
More to Things Do in San Diego for Whale Lovers
If you’re crazy about whales, there are things to do in and around San Diego that you’ll definitely enjoy. At SeaWorld® San Diego, you can see orcas, beluga whales, and bottlenose dolphins up close, and there’s a huge array of exhibits featuring other marine animals plus lots of great rides.
Birch Aquarium showcases the research of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It’s a perfect stop for marine life enthusiasts and budding oceanographers or anyone who wants to enjoy a fun family day out. There are hands-on exhibits and more than 60 fish and invertebrate habitats.
FAQs About San Diego Whale Watching
Is it whale watching season in San Diego?
Yes, whale watching season in San Diego is technically year-round. However, the most popular time to go is between mid-December and April for gray whale sightings during their annual migration. The second popular season is in summer for blue whale sightings.
It’s lovely to be out on the water during the shoulder months because you can still see sea lions, birds, dolphins, a variety of other smaller toothed and baleen whales, and other sea creatures.
What is the best whale watching tour in San Diego?
The best whale watching tour in San Diego is family-owned and operated Flagship Cruises and Events because they have a Birch Aquarium naturalist onboard. These cruises are fun for the whole family and receive high reviews.
What is the best month for whale watching in California?
The best month for whale watching in California depends on where in the state you are. In San Diego, the best month is usually January because that is when the most whales are spotted heading to south to Baja California, Mexico. Also, pregnant females tend to swim closer to shore when heading south and further offshore when heading north later in the season with their calves.
Where can I see whales in San Diego?
Your best chance of seeing whales in San Diego is on a tour that heads into the ocean. The guides know how to find whales and where they are most recently seen. Most tour companies mentioned on this list maintain a recent sightings list that you can check out to get an idea of what’s been seen near the time of your tour.
You can see whale spouts and rarely a whale breaching from places on land listed above like Cabrillo National Monument and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
What kind of whales are in San Diego?
You can see quite a few different whales in San Diego, including gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, minke whales, and orcas. There was even a very rare beluga whale sighting off the San Diego coast this year!
Have you taken one of the whale watching tours in San Diego? What species did you see?
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Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).
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