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Whale Watching in San Diego Guide: When to Go & Best Tours

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Whale watching in San Diego 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 companies that run the tours 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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TIP: Look 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

A whale tail sticking out of the ocean with a boat of onlookers in the distance
A lucky boat spots a whale tail.

San Diego is home to one of the largest protected marine sanctuaries in Southern California, and the rich environment attracts lots of marine mammals.

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, and pilot whales make appearances here, too.

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.

On a two-hour cruise, you’ll usually have whale sightings, and guests on whale watching tours will typically see 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 will depend on what kind of whales you want to see most. In essence, there are two main whale watching seasons.

In the winter and spring, thousands of gray whales travel 6,000 miles down the coastline on their way to the warm calving grounds of Mexico. 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 boat 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.

A large pod of Pacific common dolphins

You’ll also spot dolphins, harbor seals, and California sea lions on most whale watching tours as you make your way in and out of the harbor. You might see a bonus orca or two, as well.

These tours not only (hopefully) provide the opportunity to see a whale, but will also take you by famous landmarks so that you can do a little sightseeing from the water.

Recommended San Diego Whale Watching Tours

The side benefit to booking one of the best whale watching tours in San Diego 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 until you reach the Pacific Ocean. It can be a gorgeous and peaceful half-day out on the water.

Flagship Cruises & Events

Flagship Cruises & Eventstwice-daily whale watching cruises happen during the gray whale migration roughly between early December and mid-April. Naturalists from Birch Aquarium join the tours, providing guests with additional insight into our ocean and the marine life in it.

A snack bar serves refreshments include hot dogs, sandwiches, chips, soda, alcoholic beverages and more. Their Whale Tail Guarantee means that if you don’t spot a whale during your tour, you may join another tour for free.

Hornblower Cruises & Events

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 whale watching 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

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 (with the exception of red wine).

Next Level Sailing offers the only “no seasickness guarantee” in the world 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

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.)

Use code lajollamom and click the green checkmark for a 20% discount on tours, lessons, and rentals at Everyday California. This includes private surf lessons, kayaking tours, SUP rentals, and more. Like their retail offerings? Use code LJM20 for 20% off of clothes and accessories online.

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What to Bring on Whale Watching Tours

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, 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. I recommend being prepared for everything.

Sunscreen and sun protection is always a must, given the near-constant sunshine in San Diego. It’s a good idea to carry a light jacket or a sweatshirt because the marine layer can make for cool mornings.

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.

Whale watching excursions are usually very respectful of whales and other marine animals so you won’t get that close on your tour.

Whale Watching from San Diego Shorelines

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 with visitors to San Diego anyway.

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, Torrey Pines Reserve, or Birch Aquarium.

It’s also possible to spot whales from land at Cabrillo National Monument, but it’s all about being lucky (you’re better off seeing whales on a tour).

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.

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 family day out. There are hands-on exhibits and more than 60 fish and invertebrate habitats. The Voices In The Sea exhibit, which is all about whale communication, is a must-see for whale lovers.

Have you taken one of the whale watching tours in San Diego? What species did you see?

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