San Diego is perhaps one of the best California cities to see ocean-faring mammals at their finest. In fact, during whale watching season in San Diego, you'll find plenty of ways to see the migration.
Trips are reasonably short and some companies guarantee a sighting — or you can go again for free. Although I offer no such guarantee, my tips will certainly increase your chances of seeing whales show off their tails — and more.
Best Time for Whale Watching in San Diego
Whale watching season in San Diego runs from mid-December through April and migrating gray whales are the most common species. To see females with their calves, you should go late in the season as they take their babies back north with them.
To find out what all those wonderful creatures look like up close (and what they look like when you see them from a whale watching boat), check out the California Whale Watching Guide.
Whale Watching Cruises from San Diego
You'll find plenty of ways to enjoy whale watching season in San Diego. These are listed in rough order based on reader reviews online:
- Flagship Cruises: With Birch Aquarium Naturalists on board, they guarantee a sighting or you go again for free. Their whale watching cruise is one of the attractions offered on the Go San Diego Card, which may be your least-expensive way to go.
- Next Level Sailing: This whale watch cruise comes with a bold guarantee: Not only will they take you out again if you don't see a whale, but they're so confident that you won't get seasick riding in their stable sailboat that they will provide a gift certificate to a local restaurant if your day is spoiled by motion sickness. They also have a slightly longer season than other whale watching companies.
- OEX La Jolla: You'll have to propel yourself - in a kayak - to take this tour, but organizers say it allows guests to paddle within 40 feet of gray whales, seals, and sea lions.
- Xplore Offshore: This company uses a specially-built "ocean raft" that's closer to the water and goes faster than the bigger whale-watching boats - so you can go further from shore. One look at their videos and you may be hooked.
- Hornblower San Diego: With naturalists from the Natural History Museum and stabilized boats that minimize seasickness, this is one of the most comfortable whale watching options.
- San Diego Natural History Museum: They offer the longest whale watching cruise from San Diego, which takes you out for six hours, going south to the Coronado Islands Marine Sanctuary.
Whale Watching from the Shore Around San Diego
If you'd rather not go out in a bobbing boat to see the whales, you can also see them from the shoreline.
A couple of the best whale watching spots for landlubbers: In La Jolla, try Scripps Park just above La Jolla Cove, the Birch Aquarium, and Torrey Pines State Reserve. The heights around Whale Overlook and Old Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument are also great spots to watch the migration.
They're easiest to see from mid-December to mid-February during the northward migration when they swim closer to the shore. Other times of the year, the whales are usually too far from the shore to see, even with binoculars in hand.
How to Enjoy San Diego Whale Watching
No matter where you watch the whales, the basics are the same. Get tips for picking the best company and ways to have the most enjoyable experience in the California Whale Watching Guide.
More things Whale-Related in San Diego
If you want to see orcas around San Diego, head to Sea World. While they are sometimes spotted off the California coast, their range doesn't extend quite that far south.
Whale Watch Weekend and Intertidal Life Festival happens at Cabrillo National Monument in February.