San Diego is one of the best places in the world to spot whales. With over 70 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean, San Diego sits squarely in the middle of the Alaska-Mexico whale migration route.
Join a whale watching tour to get very close to these giants of the sea and see them with your own eyes. Read all the information on whale watching cruises from San Diego, including which seasons are the best, which whales can be seen and how to best enjoy the experience.
What season is the best to watch whales from San Diego?
San Diego is in a unique geographical position that allows you to see whales practically all year round. There are two main seasons for two types of whales, while other whales or marine animals can be seen all year round.
- Winter and spring: gray whales can be seen. The observation period runs from mid-December to April.
- Summer and autumn: you can see blue whales. The observation period runs from May to September.
- All the year: some minor whales and dolphins can be seen.
Which whales can be seen on a whale watching cruise?
Winter and spring: observation of the gray whales
Gray whales are known for making long migratory journeys. Every year, thousands of gray whales (up to 20,000 specimens) move from Alaska's coasts in the fall to reach the coasts of Baja California in Mexico, to mate and reproduce. In the spring, when the offspring have already grown, gray whales resume their journey back to the food-rich waters of Alaska. The migration journey is nearly 10,000 miles long.
Gray whales swim very close to the coast and, therefore, can even be seen from land and easily approached by whale watching tours. You will see the typical jet of water from the back of the gray whale.
Summer and autumn: observation of the blue whales
Blue whales are the largest animals on our planet: they can reach a length of over 100 feet and throw jets of water up to 30 feet high.
The blue whales follow different routes than gray whales and go further south in the Pacific, up to Costa Rica. During the summer, the largest group of blue whales in the world, with up to 3,000 specimens, stationed off the Californian coast. In theory, blue whales can be seen all year round, but spotting them is not as likely as in the summer (between May and September).
The blue whales swim in high waters and, therefore, can only be seen on whale watching cruises.
Observation all year round
While there are some indicative seasons for watching gray whales and blue whales, there are other types of whales that can be seen year-round.
Humpback whales are smaller than gray and blue whales, but they can reach 50 feet in length. Humpback whales tend to stay in the feeding zone for weeks and often stay off San Diego.
Minke whales, also found in San Diego waters, are among the smallest and are recognizable by white sides on the body and fins.
Fin whales are another species that can be seen off the coast of San Diego, especially in the summer months. They are the second-largest species after the blue whales. They are black or dark gray and the lower part is white.
Other marine animals can be seen all year round. Dolphins, in particular, are always spotted on whale-watching boat tours.
Which other marine animals can be seen on a whale watching cruise?
On a whale watching tour, you will be able to see a variety of other marine animals. The most common animals are dolphins, which are spotted on virtually every tour.
Dolphins are easily approached by boats and enjoy playing with boats and people. They will very quickly become the animals most loved by children!
The most common species are bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and white-sided dolphins. The latter are not present all year round but only in the winter months.
Other species that can be seen but less common than dolphins are sea lions, certain types of sharks, and several types of seabirds. Mola Mola fish is also quite common in the summer.
Where to spot whales from San Diego?
Gray whales swim relatively close to the coast and can be seen at a far distance even from land. The best viewing spots are the Birch Aquarium area in Scripps, the Cabrillo National Monument on the Point Loma Peninsula, and the coastal trails of Torrey Pines State Reserve. These places offer sweeping views of the Pacific.
The most common and effective way to spot whales is to join a whale watching cruise. The boats can spot whales quite easily and take you very close to them. This is also the only way to see the blue whale, which usually stays off the coast. Also, during the whale watching tour, you will indeed be surrounded by pods of dolphins, which will become the most fun part of the tour.
What are the best whale watching cruises?
The Hornblower cruise is one of the largest boats available for whale watching in San Diego. The boat has two floors with large indoor and outdoor spaces.
The tour is organized in partnership with the San Diego Natural History Museum and the captain and whalers are experts in underwater life. They will tell you a lot of information about whales' lives and the efforts made to preserve a natural environment suitable for their lives.
The cruise lasts 3.5 to 4 hours and departs twice daily from the Port of San Diego at 9.30 am and 1.30 pm.
Flagship Cruises' double-decker yacht offers 360-degree views from the main floor and second-floor terrace. This whale watching tour is led by Birch Aquarium experts who will provide live commentary about whale life and efforts to preserve these species.
This whale watching tour lasts approximately 4 hours and is available twice a day, at 9.30 am and 1.30 pm.
San Diego Whale Watching
San Diego Whale Watching boats depart from Mission Bay. The starting point is very convenient because it is easily accessible from all north of San Diego (Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, La Jolla) and, in a few minutes by boat, you can go out to sea.
Go in search of whales on this cruise. Follow the captain's instructions and the biologists on board who know very well the best places to see these giants of the sea.
This whale watching tour departs once a day at 12.30 pm. The maximum number of people allowed on the ship is 100 participants.
Next Level Sailing
Travel on the luxurious sailboat America. The America is a replica of the sailboat that won the first America's Cup of sailing boats in 1851.
Traveling on a sailboat is certainly more exciting than a motorboat. Also, it is much better for whale watching activity. Moving with the wind force, the boat produces no noise from the engines and does not scare the animals.
The America is also a very stable boat and the operator offers the "no seasickness" guarantee, offering you a second trip for free if you get seasick in the first.
This cruise also includes the admission ticket to the San Diego Maritime Museum included in the price (value of $ 20). The museum is located near the tour departure point and can be visited before or after the tour (only on the day of the cruise).
Snacks and (non-alcoholic) drinks offered on the ship are included in the price and participants are welcome to bring a packed lunch or bottle of wine to enjoy onboard.
The boat can accommodate a maximum of 77 people on one tour. The tour operates twice a day, departing at 9 or 1.15 pm and lasts approximately 4.5 hours.
How much does a whale watching tour from San Diego cost?
Whale watching cruises from San Diego are very similarly priced.
- The Hornblower cruise costs $ 45 on weekdays and $ 50 on Saturdays and Sundays.
- The Flagship Cruises boat tour costs $ 45 on weekdays and $ 50 on weekends.
- The San Diego Whale Watching Cruise costs approximately $ 52.
- Next Level Sailing Sailing Tour starts at $ 85. This tour is more expensive because it is done on a sailboat with a smaller number of participants.
Will I be guaranteed to see whales during the tour?
It is not guaranteed to see whales on the boat tour. However, if you don't see whales during the tour, the operators offer a free voucher valid for another tour (for the following day or another date) where you can try again to spot whales.
In general, most tours manage to spot whales as well as several pods of dolphins.
Where do San Diego whale watching cruises depart from?
Hornblower Cruises and Flagship Cruises' whale watching cruises depart from the Port of San Diego near the USS Midway.
Next Level Sailing's sailing cruise departs from Shelter Island Pier.
The Flagship Cruises boat tour departs from Mission Bay, which may be more convenient to reach if you are staying in the Pacific Beach or La Jolla area.
If you are visiting the north coast of San Diego in the direction of Los Angeles, you can consider reserving one whale watching cruise from Newport Beach.
Do I need to book a whale watching tour online?
It is not strictly necessary to book online, but it is strongly recommended. The number of seats available for each boat is limited and this activity is very popular in San Diego. Therefore, as there are a limited number of operators operating this activity, whale watching tours may not be available for your preferred dates or times.
What happens to the whale watching tour in case of bad weather?
Whale watching cruises are rather large boats designed for ocean navigation. In general, boats can operate safely even in dull weather. All boats also offer covered space from which you can see the ocean.
In case of severe bad weather, the activity can be canceled. The operators will contact you to communicate the cancellation of the activity by offering another available date or by offering you a refund. Furthermore, all activities offer the customer the option to cancel for free up to 24 hours before the activity.
Which other water activities can be done in San Diego?
San Diego overlooks the Pacific Ocean and has a coastline with long sandy beaches and cliffs with caves and wide bays with calm waters. Therefore, the environment is perfect for other water sports and activities.
Among the most common water activities we find:
- Kayaking tour in San Diego. The most exciting kayak tour takes place in La Jolla, where there is a cliff with natural bays and caves, as well as a colony of sea lions. Some kayak tours or kayak rentals are available in San Diego Bay or Mission Bay.
- San Diego Bay Cruises and Boat Tours. San Diego Bay boat tours include sightseeing cruises, jet boat rides, sunset cruises, sailing tours, etc.
- Jet Ski Tour. Rent a jet ski at San Diego Harbor or Mission Bay to enjoy moments of pure adrenaline.
- Snorkeling. As with kayaking, the best area for snorkeling in San Diego is in La Jolla.
To complete the visit to the port area of San Diego, we recommend visiting the USS Midway, which is located near the starting point of several whale watching tours.
Here are some travel tips for getting the most out of your whale watching cruise.
- Even though San Diego's climate is temperate, don't forget that in the middle of the ocean, the temperature is lower, there is humidity, and there can be wind. So remember to dress in layers and bring a waterproof windbreaker depending on the weather conditions of the day.
- Book online as soon as you decide on the date of the activity. Whale watching cruises can be sold out.
- If you suffer from seasickness, choose a larger vessel like Hornblower or Next Level Sailing or take the pills to reduce the sickness.
- Arrive at least half an hour early to have time to board the ship and settle down. Also, consider the time to find the exact location and park. Cruises depart on time.