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Whale Watching off the San Diego Coast

As an East Coast transplant, the term “San Diego winter” seems like an oxymoron. Temperatures rarely drop below 60 degrees and the sun shines even on these cooler days. It’s during this winter, though, that you’re forced to find something other than sun tanning or swimming to occupy your time. Whale watching tours seem like the perfect way to stay outside December through March, and offers a chance to get a glimpse of these large wonders as they slowly migrate south from the Arctic sea to Baja, Mexico for the winter.

Start your day off right: dress warmly with a scarf, gloves, and hat. Even though it’s Southern California, the ocean waves and winds can be a bit trying. If the sun sets behind the marine layer (aka fog) you’ll wish you had your layers. Once you’ve parked, head towards Cruise Ship Terminal along Harbor Drive, and warm up with a coffee and muffin at one of the many restaurants open for breakfast.

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San Diego Harbor Excursions leave promptly, so, about half an hour before your scheduled embarkment, retrieve your tickets and head onboard the vessel. Bring your own snacks or stop by the ship’s snack bar for one of the myriad of reasonably priced options, including hot chocolate, water, and extras like batteries, sunscreen, and Dramamine for those who get seasick easily. Head upstairs to the Observation deck and make yourself comfortable towards the bow (or front for you landlubbers) if you can-this is where most of the action takes place-but be weary of the deafening horn. If you are stuck in the stern no need to worry; no one stays seated once the whales breach.

Regardless of where you sit, be sure to pay attention to the Birch Aquarium tour guide as you cruise through the San Diego harbor. Throughout the trip, information about the distant Mexican hills, sea lions sunbathing on the buoys, and kelp forests in the water is shared via microphone and assistants. These tour guides are invaluable for spotting whales a mile off Point Loma.

The whale watching tour companies are not competitive, so once they’ve gotten word of a whale’s location from another boat nearby, they will change course and head over to the location where a whale was last seen. As the vessel joins the parade of boats in queue to see one of the 26,000 migrating California Gray Whales, nestle up to the hand rail to get a glimpse. You’ll want to get close enough to see the barnacles on the bottom of his flukes. Look for “footprints” from a whale, the dotted line of flat water where the whale has come up for air. The whale’s tail swirls underwater and leaves behind a flat puddle in the midst of the choppy waves.

On the way back into the harbor after the three and a half hour long excursion, you’ll take a detour to the fishery where the sea lions and cormorants sunbathe. Once you’re back in the slip, meander into the floating souvenir boat to commemorate your time at sea.

Afterwards head to the San Diego Holiday Inn on the Bay to find Wheel Fun Rentals where you can rent one- to four-person bikes. Take your cruiser, surrey, or coupe along the Embarcadero Boardwalk for a glimpse of the harbor, including that cruise ship you just walked off. Head east along the walkway towards Seaport Village where you can leave your bike and stretch your sea legs.

This shopping village, located a little further south along Harbor Drive, boasts a waterfront view spanning from the Coronado Bridge to the seaport. Sit in the open air plaza while enjoying the live music and many shopping stores. Stop by the many sculptures along the way, join the kids on the $2 carousel, or drop a coin in the fountain. You’ll need to refuel, so grab some grub-try the San Diego Burger Company for a great combo deal and a hearty meal-in the village and sit on the tile patio to watch the bay traffic float by.

After a long day on the water and exploring San Diego’s Seaport Village, head home, relax, and upload your new pictures. They’ll help remind you that even off the sand, it’s good to be in San Diego during winter.

What & Where:

San Diego Burger Company (879 W. Harbor Drive; 619-239-7901)
San Diego Harbor Excursions (1050 N. Harbor Drive; 619-234-4111)
Seaport Village (849 W. Harbor Drive; 619-235-4014)
The Bay Café
(1050 N. Harbor Drive; 619-595-1083)
Wheel Fun Rentals (1355 N. Harbor Drive; 619-342-7244)

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