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The Best Whale Watching San Diego Has to Offer

April 11, 2023

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San Diego is already the envy of many cities around the country for what seems like eternal sunshine and those fish tacos. But it’s also an excellent place to get your wildlife fix, especially if you’re interested in seeing the Pacific Ocean’s best marine life.

The most impressive is San Diego’s migrating whales. For much of the year during a San Diego visit, you’ll likely have access to whale watching in San Diego, with different species migrating during different seasons throughout the year. 

Use this guide to the best whale watching San Diego has to offer and see these majestic animals for yourself!

Whale Watching San Diego: When to Go

If you’re planning a San Diego visit around whale watching season in San Diego, there are a few things you should know.

The best time to whale watch in San Diego depends on the species you’re looking to see while you’re out there. If you’re just visiting San Diego, you have quite a few options on the time of year to spot whales and San Diego whale watching season. 

Mid-June through September is a good time to be on the lookout for San Diego’s blue whales. 

The fall months of October and November are the quietest time for whales in San Diego, with December picking up again for migrating gray whales.

Mid-December until the end of April is also a good time to see humpback whales, fin whales, and minke whales. These populations aren’t tracked as closely as the blue and gray whale species, making them more of a pleasant surprise on whale watching in San Diego adventures.

Humpback Whale Breaching the Water Photo Credit: Jon Eckert |

Whales in San Diego

San Diego has two main whale populations to observe while you’re there: blue whales and gray whales. 

The blue whales who make their way along the California coast each summer are on the hunt for krill in the warming waters. Their spouts are likely what you’ll see first no matter where you’re watching for them, as they shoot up to 30 feet high. 

You’re more likely to see these beauties, the largest mammals on Earth, on a whale watching tour. They keep pretty far away from shore, so it’s easier to leave the whale spotting to the professionals with these. The local populations have grown over the last few years, with up to 3,000 blue whales cruising the California coast each year. The species remains very much endangered.

Gray whales are more plentiful around San Diego, with more than 20,000 making the journey from Alaska to Baja California in the winter months each year. Their goal in the warmer waters is to give birth to that year’s calves, so you could be treated to a spectacle of baby whales if you’re lucky enough to catch a small pod of them on any of your whale watch adventures.

Fin whales, pilot whales, sperm whales, minke whales and humpback whales are also a possibility during your whale tours, particularly from mid-December to mid-April. Common and bottlenose dolphins are likely no matter when you set out onto the water.

If you’re interested in heading further out, you may be rewarded for it. Cruises out to the Coronado Islands off the coast of Baja California have been known to come across pods of killer whales in the summer months, on top of all of the other species mentioned here.

Whale Watching San Diego Photo Credit: Ty Tomlinson |

Where to Whale Watch in San Diego

A chartered cruise or whale watching tour will offer you your best bet at spotting whales out in their natural habitat. No matter the size of your whale watching vessel, you’ll be leaving from the San Diego Harbor.

San Diego Whale Watch and Flagship Cruises offer guarantees that you’ll see either a whale or at least a dolphin on your cruise. If you don’t, you’re able to go out again on another day at no extra charge. 

H&M Landing offers deep sea fishing trips with a side of whale watching, with some trips spanning multiple days if you’re looking to head out further along the coast.

Hornblower Cruises is a popular option for tourists looking for some San Diego fun facts along with a whale adventure. Their 4-hour whale watching excursions cruise by the best of San Diego’s landmarks by sea. The company’s also popular for their fleet of yachts. The ships are larger than most, making them a preferred option for anyone with issues out on the water.

If you have a penchant for seasickness no matter how big the boat, there are options for you around San Diego to watch for whales from the shore. Most will give you a side of panoramas for your efforts, even if you don’t see any whale activity during your visit. 

Just make sure you bring a pair of binoculars with you for the best views and so that you know what you’re looking at from up there.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, it’s a given that you should spend some time at the Preuss Tide Pool Plaza. The impressive outdoor space allows you to get up close and personal with the local tide pool creatures you’re likely to see in and around San Diego, but also offers expansive ocean views during whale watching season.

If you’re at the aquarium during any of the peak whale migration times, you’ll also have access to special exhibitions on the local whale populations and marine life experts on hand to answer any questions you may have.

If you have more time to spend in La Jolla, the views from Ellen Browning Scripps Park and nearby Whale View Point along Coast Boulevard are also decent whale-spotting locations.

Birch Aquarium Overview in San Diego /></span> <span style=Photo Credit: Birch Aquarium at Scripps |

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

You’ll want to hit the trails for the best views at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Keep to the trails that give you panoramic beach views rather than hiking to the bottom, as you won’t be looking for whales closer to the shore here.

Gray whales will be the most popular whales to spot from Torrey Pines. Pilot whales and a variety of dolphin species are also a possibility, and scientists have reported multiple sightings of two species of sperm whale in the waters recently as well.

Torrey Pines Beach in San Diego Photo Credit: Orlova Maria |


Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument. Take a stroll to Whale Watch Lookout Point once you’re there and use one of their viewfinders to go whale spotting from over 400 feet above sea level.

You’ll have the most luck in the winter months when the local gray whale population passes by on their way to Baja California. They’ll be moving from north to south, or right to left if you’re at the lookout point, at a speed of about 5 miles per hour. Look for spouts or whale tails as they dive deep below the surface about a quarter mile away from shore. Actual breaches are rare, but also possible to see here.

Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego Photo Credit: Brandy Willetts |

It’s likelier than not that you’ll be visiting San Diego during one of the peak whale watching seasons. That means the best time to whale watch in San Diego could be right now, with a variety of species for you to keep your eyes peeled for along the California coast.

Written by Agnes Groonwald for Knockaround.

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