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Whale Watching in San Diego | The Best Tours & Cruises

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 are the perfect way to stay outside December through March, and offer 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. We also have a list of 50+ more great things to do in San Diego if you want more ideas.

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Grey Whale

Start your day off right: dress warmly and bring a scarf, gloves, and hat (it can get cold on the water).

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.

San Diego Harbor Excursions Whale Watching Tour

Grey Whale blow hole

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 the queue to see one of the 26,000 migrating California Gray Whales, nestle up to the handrail 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.

Afternoon Bike Ride

Afterward, 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.

Explore Seaport Village

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 at the San Diego Burger Company. They have a great burger combo deal and a nice patio where you can 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.

The Best Month for Whale Watching in San Diego?

The best months to see whales in San Diego are mid-December to mid-March, when the gray whales migrate from Alaska to Mexico and back. Gray whales feed in the shallow waters next to the coast, so they’re close enough to reach by kayak.

Blue whale season is in the summer, usually from May to August.

Time of Day Whales Are Most Active

Whale patterns are unpredictable when it comes to the time of day and there’s no “best” time of day to go whale watching. Whales are out and about day and night, so whether you go out in the morning, afternoon or evening you’ll always have a great chance of seeing whales and other marine wildlife, especially in the peak season.

Best Whale-Watching Tours in San Diego

San Diego Winter Whale Watching Expedition Cruise

Look for gray whales as they migrate along the coast of California and learn about the migration from the Arctic to the breeding grounds of Baja California, Mexico. This Winter Whale Expedition is 3.5 hours. The boat has both outdoor and indoor seating. On the off chance the crew does not find any whales during your cruise, you receive a complimentary ticket for another trip.

Dolphin & Whale Watching Sunset Cruise

Enjoy a classic San Diego sunset while spotting whales and dolphins during this 2.5 hour wildlife cruise in Mission Bay Park. The Dolphin & Whale Watching Sunset Cruise is a perfect opportunity to see coastal California’s marine mammals in person.

Whale Watching Trip on a Historic Sailing Schooner

Go whale watching from San Diego aboard a replica of a historic sailing schooner that won the world’s first America’s Cup sailing competition in 1851. Throughout your whale watching trip, your expert guide shares information about gray whales, dolphins, and other marine animals, along with details about the US Navy sites you pass as you head out on the Pacific Ocean.


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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