- Best of San Diego
- Things To Do
- Theme Parks
- Music & Nightlife
- Beauty & Shopping
- Visitor Info
When is whale watching season in San Diego? San Diego whale watching season starts December 9. Watch the seasonal migration of California grey whales and blue whales off the San Diego Coast up close and personal.
Traditionally, whale watching season runs from December through April. However, because blue whales and gray whales migrate at different times of the year, whale watching season in San Diego is open year round. If you have a preference for one species of whale over the other, 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 the gray whales or the blue whales are in town, you can see orcas, minke whales, and fin whales year round.
Where to watch the whales in San Diego:
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 the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the Cabrillo National Monument, and the hiking trails of the Torrey Pines State Reserve. Watch the ocean surface for whale spouts. Once you locate the whales, a pair of binoculars will give you a close-up view from on land. Binoculars don't help when you are on a moving boat trying to locate moving whales.
Although an abundance of krill and changes in ocean temperatures have increased the numbers of blue whales coming to the San Diego area in recent years, they prefer the open ocean. To see blue, minke and fin whales, you will need to take a whale watching cruise.
Whether you are watching from the shore or a cruise yacht, choppy water makes it more difficult to see the whales at a distance. If you can, schedule your whale watching for a day with light winds. If your schedule is such that you must go on a day with higher winds, go in the morning or the early afternoon if possible.
What to look for in a whale watching tour:
When choosing a whale watching tour, check for boats certified by the Coast Guard. If the company uses a sighting network, they will have reports on the latest sightings and be able 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 for help with sighting and identifying whales. For your comfort, ask if there is 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.
Preparing for your whale watching cruise:
Remember that the temperature in open water will be 20° to 30° below the temperature on shore 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. In spite of the warm clothes, keep in mind that 60% of the sunlight will reflect back off of 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. However, be certain that your hat will remain on your head if the wind should pick up. 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 sickness or anti-sea sickness medication and stay on the sun deck to take in plenty of fresh air.
Prepare yourself and your children for the travel time to reach the open ocean and to find the whales. Take something with you to keep everyone occupied while you wait, and find something to take away from the trip even if no whales are found. For example, ask the naturalist about other maritime wildlife that you see.
What to watch for when watching the whales:
In San Diego, you will find both whales and dolphins to watch. Below are some of the behaviors you may witness:
Dolphins will sometimes roll over on their sides to take a look at whale and dolphin watching boat passengers. Some blue whales also engage in this behavior.
To locate whales, whether you are on land or on a cruise, watch the surface of the water 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 be moving north and gray whales south. The directions will be reversed for the return migration trip. Blue whales will swim south while gray whales swim north.
About the whales:
Blue whales, gray whales, minke whales, and fin or finback whales are all baleen whales, and they all have two blowholes. Blue whales, minke whales, and fin whales are members of the rorqual family, which also includes the "singing" humpback whales. Gray whales are commonly felt to be the only living species of their genus and family, Eschrichtius eschrichtiidae.
The distinctive coloring and markings of orcas, or killer whales, are easily recognized, but below are some of the distinguishing features of the other whales in the San Diego area.
Over 20,000 gray whales migrate from Alaska south to the lagoons of Baja California where they remain for several months while the females give birth and the calves grow large enough and strong enough for the return trip. This round trip of 10,000 miles is the longest known annual migratory route for any animal. Although gray whales usually travel alone or in small pods of two or three, they sometimes gather in larger pods during the peak of their migration. On calm days, gray whales can be identified by their unique v-shaped spout. Whalers nicknamed these whales “devil fish” because of the amount of fight they put forth when hunted.
The California coast provides the summer and fall feeding ground for 2,000 to 3,000 blue whales, the world's largest gathering of the species. These are both the largest animals currently living on the earth and the heaviest ever to have existed. They are also the most endangered of all whales. While their migratory patterns are not well mapped, these whales have been tracked swimming from the Antarctic north to Costa Rica and California. Compared to other whales, blue whales have long slender bodies. Their spout is a single, impressive column that can reach 30’ (9 m) to 39’ (12 m) high making it visible for miles on the open ocean.
Even though they are the second largest whale by size and weight, fin whales have been nicknamed the “greyhounds of the sea.” They can reach up to 23 mph (37 km/hr) in single bursts of speed. That speed protected fin whales from early whaling boats, but as the blue whale population was depleted, modern whalers began hunting fin whales until the IWC gave them full protection in 1966. The fin whale has an unusual asymmetrical color pattern that extends from the lower jaw to the baleen plates. It is black on the left side and yellow or creamy white on the right side. This pattern is reversed on the whale’s tongue. Fin whales have a tall spout, but it is shaped like an inverted cone rather than a “v” or a single column.
Minke whales are stocky whales, but they are also the smallest and the most numerous baleen whales. They have a distinctive narrow, pointed, triangular snout which has earned them the nicknames of “little piked whale” and “sharp-headed finner.” Northern minke whales have a white band on each flipper that contrasts with its dark gray dorsal coloring. Because mink whales begin to exhale before they break the surface when coming out of a dive, they have a very low spout of only 6.5’ (2m).
The history of whale watching and whale conservation:
Organized whale watching actually began in San Diego. The Cabrillo National Monument was declared a public venue for watching gray whales in 1950, and 10,000 people participated during that first year of viewing. A study conducted by a group of economists in 2009 for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) estimated that, in 2008, 13 million people participated in whale watching activities worldwide, up from the 9 million participants that were estimated in a study conducted 10 years earlier. In fact, findings by such studies about the economic benefits of whale watching have aided in the debate with the whaling industry about the most appropriate use of whales as a natural resource.
Erich Hoyt has been much involved in these studies and in the history of whale watching. In 1984, Hoyt published The Whale Watcher's Handbook, the first comprehensive book on whale watching. In 1992, he conducted the first international survey of whale watching for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). That survey was updated in 1995 and submitted by the British government at meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to establish the value of living whales versus whales killed by whalers. In 1999, Hoyt further expanded the coverage and details contained in the survey for the IFAW, and that organization published the result in 2001. While preparing to sponsor workshops encouraging whale watching in coastal Peru in 2007, the Humane Society International commissioned Hoyt to create a manual for creating and running high quality, sustainable whale watching businesses. The manual has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Dutch, French, and Spanish. Global Ocean, WDCS, IFAW, and the Humane Society International co-sponsored an updated ebook that was published in English in 2012.
The 2009 study by the IFAW found that, globally in 2008, whale watching businesses employed approximately 13,000 people and generated $2.1 million per year in tourist revenue. In the United States, whale watching businesses provided their operators with $872.7 million in revenue and provide $2,113.1 million in income for related businesses in their communities. With 119 commercial whale watching businesses operating around the world, coastal communities in developing countries are discovering that they can benefit directly from the presence of live whales. That awareness is decreasing support for the whaling industry and increasing support for creating marine protected areas and sanctuaries. These spaces not only protect the whales from whalers but also protect them from being hit by ships or caught unintentionally in fishing operations. Whale watching benefits whales by providing sustainable economic benefits for coastal communities and by introducing whale watchers to the magnificent presence of the whales as they interact in their natural environment.
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 Hornblower whale watching cruise
Hornblower Cruises & Events offers both morning and afternoon cruises, and posts their daily sightings to a log on their sight. In 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 Hornblower Whale and Dolphin Watching Adventure or Harbor Cruise. Get a remarkable and unique whale watching experience today by taking to the seas on a Hornblower cruise!