Whale Watching

When Is Whale Watching Season in San Diego?

If whale watching is your thing, or you're looking for something different to do on vacation, you can officially watch the seasonal migration of California grey and blue whales off the San Diego Coast up close and personal starting on December 9th each year.

Traditionally, whale watching season in San Diego runs from December through April. However, because the species migrate at different times, you can often find some all year round. Gray whales migrate from mid-December through April, while blue whales migrate from mid-June through September. Blue whale calves will be swimming beside their mothers for the return migration in the spring. If neither are in town, you can see orcas, minke whales, and fin whales year-round.

Where to Watch the Whales in San Diego From Land 

Gray whales and orcas come close enough to be seen from any place along the shore with a lighthouse or the word "point" in its name. Popular onshore sites for whale watching include: 

When you get to your whale-watching destination, keep an eye on the ocean surface for whale spouts. Once you locate the mammals, a pair of binoculars will give you a close-up view.

Keep in mind that spotting whales from land is a hit-or-miss activity. Your best bet for seeing these magnificent sea creatures is to go where they are: the open water.

Where to Watch the Whales in San Diego From the Sea

Although an abundance of krill and changes in ocean temperatures have increased the numbers of whales coming to the San Diego area in recent years, they prefer the still open ocean. To see blue, minke and fin whales, your best option is to hop aboard a whale-watching cruise. 

What To Look for in a Whale-Watching Tour

When choosing a whale-watching tour, the first consideration is safety, so check for boats certified by the Coast Guard. Next up is the company's ability to find the whales. If it uses a sighting network, it will have reports on the latest sightings and the ability to locate the whales more quickly. 

The most informative tours will offer a presentation by a naturalist. Ask about that person’s training and whether he or she will be available for questions and help with sighting and identifying species. 

For your comfort, ask if there's sufficient seating for everyone on the cruise and how much seating, if any, is indoors. Find out how long the tour will last and if food and drinks will be available on board or if you should bring your own. To avoid disappointment, ask if the company will offer a pass for a free tour if no whales are sighted.

Popular Whale-Watching Cruises in San Diego

Are you looking for a fun, exciting way to view the San Diego area? Are you seeking an all-ages event that will keep everyone on the edge of their seat? If you answered yes to both of these questions, you and your family (and friends!) are perfect candidates for a whale-watching cruise

City Cruises 

City Cruises offers both morning and afternoon outings and posts their daily sightings to a log on their site. On the off-chance that your party does not get to see any whales on your journey, don't fret! You will receive a "whale check" good for another Whale and Dolphin Watching Adventure or Harbor Cruise. 

Next Level Sailing

Departing from a grassy area across the street from the Island Palms Best Western Hotel, Next Level Sailing's whale watching tour features a sailing yacht for your excursion. The company offers one guided sailing per day, and while sightings are not guaranteed, they did have a 100% success rate last winter.

San Diego Whale Watch

San Diego Whale Watch offers four different tours, so there's something for everyone. Their educational tour is three hours long and narrated by a marine biologist! The adventure option features a smaller boat and limits seating to six people, while the private tour is strictly for your party of up to six people. Check out their sunset tour if you want to combine whale watching with a romantic or dramatic outing.

Preparing for Your Whale-watching Cruise

Remember that the temperature in open water will be 20 to 30 degrees below the temperature onshore and that boats can kick up a fine spray of water even if it isn’t raining. Dress in layers and bring a hooded, waterproof jacket. In winter, bring mittens, gloves, or a pair of heavy, warm socks for your hands. 

Despite the cooler temps, keep in mind that 60% of the sunlight will reflect off the water. Wear sunglasses and a sun visor or a hat with a brim or bill to shade your eyes, and don’t forget the sunscreen. 

If you are worried about seasickness, ask if the boat has stabilizers and check the sea conditions before your cruise. If you have no choice but to venture out on rough waters, try taking an over-the-counter anti-motion or anti-sea sickness medication and stay on the sun deck to breathe plenty of fresh air.

What to Watch for When Whale Watching in San Diego

In San Diego, you will find both whales and dolphins to watch. Below are some of the behaviors you may witness:

  • Bow riding - riding the pressure wave ahead of the bow of the vessel
  • Lobtailing - slapping the tail fin or fluke down upon the surface of the water
  • Pec-slapping - Raising a pectoral fin and slapping it down upon the water
  • Spyhopping - raising the head vertically out of the water
  • Breaching - Leaping completely out of the water and landing with a large splash
  • Spouting – the whale’s warm, breath, forcefully expelled after a dive, congealing in the cooler air

Dolphins will sometimes roll over on their sides to take a look at boat passengers. Some blue whales also engage in this behavior.

To locate whales on land or on a cruise, watch the water's surface for their spouts. If you have a high enough vantage point, you can also spot whales swimming below the water by watching for a circular series of calm spots on the surface. At the beginning of their migration period, blue whales will move north and gray whales south. The directions will be reversed for the return migration trip. Blue whales will swim south, while gray whales will swim north.