I have lived in San Diego for over a decade and still don’t get tired of going whale watching. Luckily, I get a lot of out-of-town visitors each year and they all seem to be happy to go on a San Diego whale watching trip with me.
Over the years, I have gone numerous times with various whale watching tours and have some great recommendations on my favorite San Diego whale watching tours and tips for your excursion.
When Is San Diego Whale Watching Season?
San Diego whale watching season is year-round, but the best time is between December and April when 20,000+ grey whales migrate along the San Diego coast. Other species, such as blue whales or fin whales can be spotted throughout the whole year.
Grey Whale Watching Season San Diego
20,000 Grey whales pass San Diego on their southward journey between December and January on their way to Baja California, Mexico. The highest concentration of Grey whales in the San Diego area is usually in Mid-January, where up to 8 animals pass through the area per hour.
On their way back north to their arctic home, the Grey whales pass San Diego in March and April heading north.
Blue Whale Watching Season in San Diego
If you missed the great grey whale migration in San Diego in the winter/spring, don’t fret. San Diego blue whale season is from Mid-June to September.
The waters around San Diego are a popular feeding spot. A few miles out from shore, there is a steep cliff in the ocean floor, where plankton is flourishing. Supposedly, the pod that feeds off the coast of San Diego is about 2-3000 animals strong.
Whale Watching Season in San Diego – Other Whales
Most Humpback whales spend their winters in the tropical paradise of Hawaii. However, there is a pod of about 2-3000 animals that flock from Alaska to Southern California instead.
Minke whales are small, stocky whales with a pointy snout. The pods in California are considered residential whales as they live here permanently, while their cousins in Alaska migrate south.
Fin whales, the second largest whale, also like to hang around the San Diego waters. They are huge AND fast, reaching up to 23 miles per hour. Fin whales do migrate, but there is a large population present in the waters of California, Oregon and Washington.
Cheap Whale Watching Tour Tickets
I usually check Groupon, Viator, or GetYourGuide for the best deals on San Diego whale watching tours. Depending on the season, duration, type, and tour, you can find tickets as cheap as 20-30$ per person. As usual, the smaller the boat, and the deeper you are in the high season, the more expensive it gets. The sailboat whale-watching tours and private tours are of course the most expensive, but they are also a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
If you are willing to drive a bit further north, like Dana Point or Newport Beach, you can find even cheaper deals, starting at 8-12$ per person. It is quite a drive though, especially with traffic and I personally have never done that. But our contributor Noreen recently went on a Whale Watching Tour in Dana Point.
What are the Best San Diego Whale Watching Tours
Flagship Cruises Whale Watching Tour
I really like this tour by Flagship Cruises, because it is run by the Birch Aquarium, which is part of the world-renowned Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.
This tour is on a pretty big ship, so it is great if you are prone to seasickness. They have restrooms, a little snack bar, and indoor/outdoor seating. They are also wheelchair accessible (I would recommend to contact them beforehand to make sure they have everything you need).
They have a naturalist on board who will tell you a lot about the various whales, and interesting facts about their breeds and behavior. The tour is fun, but also extremely educational and I highly recommend it.
Check Groupon for Flagship Cruise Deals>>
Check Viator for Flagship Whale Watching Tours
Sail San Diego Whale Watching
This is a sailboat whale watching tour for small groups of 6 people max. While it is not cheap, you are guaranteed a great time out on the water, whether you see whales or not.
Check Groupon for Sail San Diego Deals>>
Check Viator for Sail San Diego Whale Watching
La Jolla Kayak & Whale Watching Tour
This tour gets you up close and personal with the whales, as you will be in a kayak, not a boat. You will feel the size of these majestic animals as you paddle on the coast of La Jolla. I would recommend this tour only to people who are reasonably fit and people who have kayaked before, as you will be pretty far out from shore.
Check GetYourGuide for Kayak La Jolla Deals>>
Check Viator for Whale Watching Kayak Tours
RIB Adventure Whale Watching Tour
If you want a thrill, this whale watching tour on a decommissioned military RIB (rigid-inflatable-boat) is the right fit for you. With only 6 people in your group, this is a fun and adrenaline-filled tour that is a ton of fun whether you spot a whale or not.
Whale Watching Tips
Dress warm and in layers. The temperature out at sea can be significantly colder than on the coast (up to 20-30 F). Add a little breeze or some mist and you can be uncomfortably cold during the 2-3 hour trip. Add a rain jacket, just in case you catch some rain while out there. You don’t want to be stuck inside, when the whales show up.
Take motion sickness medication early. It can take quite a while to show effect, so you don’t have to suffer while you wait for your medication to kick in. Also, bring some dried ginger to chew on and keep your eyes on the horizon. I also recommend taking an early morning whale watching tour and don’t eat until after.
Protect yourself from the sun. The rays reflect from the water and can lead to a nasty sunburn, if you are not careful. As it is usually much cooler and you always feel a breeze out on the water, you probably won’t realize until it is too late. Put on your sunscreen and pack your sunglasses and a hat and protect yourself.
Take the morning tour. From what I have heard during various tours, the morning tours have higher success rates of seeing whales.
If you are visiting from out of town, schedule your whale watching tour early during your stay. Most companies will give you a free voucher if you don’t see whales. If you go whale watching on your last day, you probably won’t have another chance to take advantage of your free voucher. On the other hand, that might lead to another trip back to San Diego, which is never a bad idea.
What To Pack
- Motion sickness medication
- Dried ginger
- A thick jacket or thick sweater
- A raincoat
- A hat (make sure it fits tightly, or it could be blown off)
- A camera (preferably with a zoom lens)
- A waterproof bag, to protect your camera, phone and valuables in case it rains
Best Spots To Go Whale Watching in San Diego From The Coast
Birch Sea Aquarium
The Birch Sea Aquarium is part of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UCSD in La Jolla. They have a conservation project going on and showcase the local wildlife to visitors. From the Birch Aquarium Terrace, you will have a splendid view over the La Jolla coastline and it is easy to spot whales from there.
Get your tickets for the Birch Sea Aquarium here>>
Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma is also a great spot to go whale watching in San Diego from land. You are pretty high up and when the weather is right, you can see for miles and miles. As this is a National Monument, you have to pay an entrance fee of ~10 per person (walk-ins) or ~$30 per car.
Plan your visit to Cabrillo National Monument here>>
Torrey Pines State Park
Torrey Pines is not only famous for its gorgeous golf course, but also for the stunning Torrey Pines State Park. It is one of my favorite hiking spots in San Diego and you can enjoy sweeping views over the coast. It is a great spot to go whale watching from land in San Diego.
Admission runs about 12-15$ per car, depending on demand. It is a favorite spot for locals and tourists, so if you can avoid visiting on the weekend, I’d recommend it.
Whale Watching in San Diego is a lot of fun and you have a few options for almost any budget. Seeing these majestic creatures out in the wild is an amazing experience and if you have the chance, whether you are a San Diego local or just visiting, I would highly recommend it. Whale Watching in San Diego was written by Maria Haase for SanDiegoExplorer.com Last Updated on March 3, 2023 by Anastasia Rybina
San Diego Whale Watching – Pin for Later:
Whale Watching in San Diego is a lot of fun and you have a few options for almost any budget. Seeing these majestic creatures out in the wild is an amazing experience and if you have the chance, whether you are a San Diego local or just visiting, I would highly recommend it.
Whale Watching in San Diego was written by Maria Haase for SanDiegoExplorer.com
Last Updated on March 3, 2023 by Anastasia Rybina
Hi Maria. I wish I had found this info before we booked our tour which was so disappointing, no whales were sited and we spent way too much money. If we make it back to San Diego we will definitely heed your advice. BTW, we weren’t even offered a voucher.
Oh no, I am so sorry to hear that. Whale sightings are never guaranteed, but most companies do give a voucher to go again. I hope next time will be a better experience for you.