Were you inspired by the recent Rio Olympics? Though I love pretty much all the events (gymnastics, anyone?!), the water sports are the ones I most want to be a part of. From beach volleyball to the amazing swimming feats of Micheal Phelps and Katie Ledecky to the gold win for the women’s water polo team, watching these events reminded me how much I love to be in the water – though my athletic prowess obviously pales (by about a billion times) compared to the Olympic athletes. Still, it got me thinking how many opportunities there are for water adventures in San Diego. While one of my favorite pastimes is simply letting the Pacific waves wash over my bare toes on the beach, there are a lot more water activities in San Diego than first meets the eye and beyond that great blue ocean lapping at the coastline of San Diego. I did some research and called upon a few old favorites of mine to deliver this intensive guide to water activities in San Diego. Get ready for some refreshing water fun, whether it’s in the bays or along the shoreline of San Diego, or in calm Carlsbad Lagoon in North County San Diego.
San Diego and surfing go hand-in-hand, for good reason. The ocean perimeter that kisses San Diego’s land boasts some excellent surf spots, with top ones being Black’s Beach in San Diego, Ocean Beach by the pier, Tourmaline Beach in Pacific Beach, Windansea Beach in La Jolla, Swami’s in Encinitas and Tamarack Beach in Carlsbad. Beginner surfers should head to La Jolla – both La Jolla Shores and the area just north of the La Jolla pier are good spots with gentler waves in which to practice standing up on your board while catching a break.
Surfing’s little cousin, boogie boarding (also referred to as boogie boarding) is a fun alternative for those who can’t stand up on a surfboard (ahem, present company included). Body boarding uses a stubby board that is usually about three feet long. Instead of standing on it, body boarders position their torso over the board with their feet dragging in the surf behind it in order to ride the wave in. My favorite places for body boarding are Moonlight Beach in Encinitas and the Carlsbad beaches just north of Tamarack (leave actual Tamarack Beach to the surfers – those waves can be intense), and south Pacific Beach.
That’s right, you don’t only have to do surfing in the ocean in San Diego. Thanks to the WaveRider at the popular Belmont Park Wave House restaurant and bar in Mission Beach, you can ride a wave – and a big one at that – without having to battle sand…oh wait, I take that back. The Wave has a sand covered bar floor, which just adds to the fun. Even if you don’t want to actual ride the wave simulator, it’s still fun to watch while sipping a cocktail or a local craft beer.
The ocean isn’t just for surfing and boogie boarding; you can swim in it, too. Well, obviously, you may be thinking; however, the waves of the Pacific shoreline make it a bit hard to do so. Therefore, if you want to practice your freestyle stroke (or butterfly if you’re being really ambitious), head to the La Jolla Cove where the water is a bit calmer – just make sure you stay in the cove area and don’t stray too close to the rocky coastline just north and south of it.
Both sea and lagoon adventures are available in San Diego. Popular sea kayak excursions include kayaking around Mission Bay or taking things up an adventurous notch and heading into the sea caves of La Jolla. Tours are available (and are required for the sea caves) or you can just rent a kayak and paddles around on your own in both areas. I’ve enjoyed kayaking in both areas though a highlight was when an inquisitive seal came near my kayak and swam right under it. Lagoon kayaking is also available in Carlsbad Lagoon and is a good alternative for those a bit nervous about encountering rogue waves or curious sea animals.
It may not be the Caribbean with clear aquamarine water, but San Diego still has some great snorkeling to be found, particularly in La Jolla Cove, which is often calm enough to have enough visibility to spot the reef sharks, fish, stingrays, and even seals swimming around below you. There are a number of rental companies in La Jolla Shores who rent snorkel equipment and even arrange snorkel tours.
Scuba diving in San Diego is admittedly a bit cold, but that’s why there are thick wetsuits. Don such a wetsuit (and booties) and get ready to explore the underworld of the ocean off the coast of San Diego where you can see reef sharks and seals (La Jolla) and even some submerged ships at Wreck Alley, located about a mile off of San Diego Bay. There are companies that offer scuba diving tours, or if you’re a certified open water diver with lots of experience, you can just rent or bring your own scuba gear and access La Jolla Cove straight from the shore, though it is a tough climb down and back up with your gear on.
Stand Up Paddleboarding
Stand up Paddleboarding isn’t just the sport du jour right now; it’s also a great workout that gets you out on the water. Many of the water sports rental companies offer paddleboards now, and the best places to paddleboard are where you can find some relatively calm water. In San Diego your best bets are La Jolla Shores (once you navigate past that early wave break), Carlsbad Lagoon, and Mission Bay.
This is a unique water activity in San Diego. Get some snorkeling gear, but then forget everything else you picture when you think of a snorkeling excursion. For this one, you’ll also want some thick gloves, a cooler, and a few other supplies. You’ll also be making some deep swims from the surface to – you guessed it – catch some spiny lobster. There are some rules and regulations to lobster diving, and you’ll need a license, but it’s a memorable way to catch your dinner. You can read more about lobster diving protocols and tips here.
The literal and figurative rush you’ll get from zooming across water ripples on a Jet Ski (or WaveRunner) makes it a great way to spend a morning or afternoon of adventure in San Diego. Most rental companies offer Jet Ski rentals by the hour where you can hop on one and start racing around Mission Bay, San Diego Bay and Carlsbad Lagoon.
San Diego’s marinas are home to a number of sailboats, and some of those lovely tall boats are available to rent. Unless you can prove you’re an accomplished sailor, you’ll likely need to hire a skipper to operate the sailboat for you. However, that means you can then just lie back and take in the scenery, which if you’re sailing around the San Diego Bay means views of the Coronado Bridge, hills of Point Loma, and downtown’s stunning skyline.
If you like your boating to be a bit faster than what sailing can offer, rent a powerboat instead. If you take it out on calm bays, you can even waterski or go tubing behind it, though be sure you find out the rules for this from your rental company beforehand as it’s not permitted everywhere. You can read more about this rule and other regulations on sandiego.gov.
You don’t have to rent a boat on the bay in order to experience the thrill of water skiing. At the Carlsbad Lagoon, you’ll be provided with a boat, driver, equipment, and an additional instructor to help you excel at waterskiing or wakeboarding. Choose from 30-minute or 60-minute excursion options.
This is a fun pastime for families with kids as you can take your adventuresome offspring out on the water, but not worry about speed being involved. You’ll just go as fast as you can all pedal together. Paddle boats are a bit harder to find, but the rental companies by the major resorts along San Diego Bay and La Jolla often have them.
Families with kids may want the more engineered way to get wet while in San Diego, and luckily San Diego County is home to two great water parks. First, there’s LEGO Legends of CHIMA Water Park, located within popular amusement park, Legoland. You can upgrade your ticket to Legoland to include a pass to this fun wet and wild zone. Wave Water Park in Vista (located about 15 minutes east of Carlsbad and 45 minutes north of San Diego) is also a fun spot to go slipping and sliding down water tubes. Wave Water Park also has a lazy river, water playground and swimming pool. Your kids may also be intrigued by the flow rider lessons and mermaid swim lessons.
Where to Stay for a Water Sports Filled Weekend in San Diego
Kona Kai Resort & Spa in Shelter Island is a unique spot as its also home to a marina and has a number of water sports equipment you can rent directly through the resort, including paddleboards, kayaks, power boats, pedal boats and Jet Skis.
For a surfing-focused beach trip, you’ll love the modern yet laidback atmosphere of Tower 23 Hotel, which includes easy access to the surf spots of Pacific Beach. After a day of catching waves, you can head back to the hotel and utilize the spa for a relaxing massage on your tired muscles.
Up in North County San Diego, staying at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa will situate you in close proximity to the water parks of Legoland and Vista, plus the La Costa Lagoon. You’ll also be able to utilize Omni La Costa’s massive pool for some swimming in the sunshine.
Water Sports Rental Companies in San Diego
Here are some of the water sports equipment companies in San Diego to help get you started on your San Diego water adventure.
- La Jolla Kayak: 2199 Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla, 858-459-1114
- Bike and Kayak Tours, La Jolla: 2158 Avenida de la Playa, 858-454-1010
- Bike and Kayak Tours, Coronado: 1201 1st Street #215, 858-454-1010
- Scuba San Diego: 1775 East Mission Bay Drive in San Diego, 619-260-1880
- Mission Bay Sportcenter: 1010 Santa Clara Place in San Diego, 858-488-1004
- Aqua Adventures: 1548 Quivira Way in San Diego, 619-523-9577
- Seaforth Boat Rentals: Locations in Harbor Island, Coronado, Downtown and Mission Bay, 888-834-2628
- OEX Point Loma: 5060 North Harbor Drive Suite 165 in San Diego, 619-224-4241
- Action Sport Rentals: Locations all around San Diego, 619-241-4794
- PB Surf Shop: 4150 Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach, 858-373-1138
- Carlsbad Lagoon: 4215 Harrison Street in Carlsbad, 760-434-3089