When Is the Best Time
This is our complete San Diego whale watching guide with tips for each season and month. San Diego is one of the best locations on the West Coast of the U.S. for whale watching, as 70 miles of coastline in this area is directly in their migration path. Migrating whales can be found off shore year-round and, depending on the season, different types of whales are more prominent than others. Get up close and personal with these incredible creatures with a cruise that specializes in whale watching and knows where to go for the best chances of connecting with the whales. As frequent whale watching passengers and after conducting dozens of interviews with local experts, we are able to tell you everything about the San Diego whale watching season:
Whale Watching Season | Overview
Whale watching season in San Diego usually runs from mid-December to late April. During that time up to 20,000 gray whales migrate through California waters. It is also possible to spot Humpback whales, fin whales, and minke whales.
However, the season doesn’t end in April. During the summer months, between May and August, blue whale sightings are possible as well as humpback whales and other species
The best time for whale watching in San Diego is in the morning. The sea is usually calmer compared to other times of the day. Also, perfect sea and weather conditions make it easier to spot whales from a greater distance. The season doesn’t matter that much, as whales can be spotted here at any time of the year.
Disclaimer: Although San Diego is one of the best areas for whale watching activities, we and the tour operators cannot guarantee stunning whale sightings at certain times. Wildlife on our planet is not 100% predictable. However, tour operators usually offer a free voucher for another tour in the seldom case no sightings happened.
Whale Watching Tours | Winter - Spring
While almost every whale watching tour operator is great for spotting gray whales, we prefer the Hornblower Tours and the Flagship Tours (check the image/banner above) for three reasons:
- They both have excellent boats
- They both have extremely experienced captains
- The staff from both operators is extremely professional, knowledgeable and very friendly
Reserve your spot here via banner above or with the following links (both offered via GetYourGuide with excellent customer service):
Important: Hornblower delayed their season start this year (2020/21). Thus, they cannot be booked in 2020. Please book the excellent Flagship Tours instead.
Pre-booking is highly recommended(!), as tours sell out quickly and you run the risk of not getting a spot. As a safety measure boats currently have limited passenger capacity. That makes it even more important to book well in advance!
Whale Watching Tours | Summer - Fall
The best whale watching tour in summer and fall you can experience is by jumping on-board of the world-famous schooner 'The America'. It's an amazing experience! Don't be afraid of getting seasick: Their boat is quite big and stable, which results in a smooth ride. While they also operate in the winter, we highly recommend to use either Flagship or Hornblower in the cooler months (see above). Book well in advance: 'The America' - San Diego Whale Watching Cruise | May - November
Monthly Reports | San Diego Whale Sightings and Weather
In January, you can spot gray whales, humpback whales, dolphins, and other whales. Weather: 66°F (average high) and 6 rainy days. Typical sightings: ‘A pair of gray whales popped up. They were surfacing for breathes and then went for deep dives. Fascinating! We also saw a pod of about 50 Risso Dolphins and over 200 common dolphins acting playful’
February is one of the best whale watching months in San Diego. A large number of migrating gray whales are present off the coast. Also, dolphins and maybe humpback whales can be spotted on a tour.
Weather: 66°F (average high) and 7 rainy days. Typical sightings: ‘On the morning tour we encountered a total of 4 southbound gray whales, as well as a few Pacific White-Sided Dolphins and at least 20 common dolphins around our boat’
In March, gray whales are still migrating along the coast. Humpback whales, dolphins and other types of whales are possible. Weather: 67°F (average high) and 7 rainy days. Typical sightings: ‘We saw three northbound gray whales, two adults, and a calf. Throughout the day we encountered a total of 14 gray whales, at least 10 of them in close proximity to the boat. Unforgettable!’
April is still a great whale watching month in San Diego. You have the last chance to see a migrating gray whale. It's even possible to spot a baby gray whale with its mother. Additionally, dolphins and perhaps Humpbacks or fin whales are present, sometimes even a blue whale already. Weather: 68°F (average high) and 4 rainy days. Typical sightings: ‘We spotted one northbound gray whale on its migration. It surfaced quite often. What a sight! On the way back we were accompanied by a pod of 100+ dolphins.’
In May, the blue whale season usually officially begins with many of them circling not too far from the San Diego coast. The largest creature ever existed on our planet! Weather: 70°F (average high) and 3 rainy days. Sighting Example: ‘On our morning trip we encountered a total of three blue whales and one fin whale, as well as a megapod of common dolphins. One of the blue whales seemed comfortable close to our boat which provided excellent looks and resulted in a great experience!’
June is another month with great opportunities for blue whale sightings, as it’s still their peak season. Weather: 72°F (average high) and 1 rainy day. Typical sighting: ‘We encountered one blue whale not too far from us. This one spent quite a while at the surface for excellent photo opportunities. And again, a pod of at least 50+ playful dolphins. A great trip!’
In July, you can not only see blue whales, it’s possible to spot fin whales and humpbacks in San Diego water. Weather: 75°F (average high) and 1 rainy day. Sighting report: ‘We came across three different whales: One humpback, one blue whale, and one Bryde’s whale! All three were amazing, but the highlight was the blue whale. It was so close and then even swam underneath our boat for 3(!) times. What an exciting close-up encounter!’
August is the last month where you have a good chance to spot the incredible blue whales Other whale sightings are possible as well. Weather: 79°F (average high) and 1 rainy day. A sightings report from a day in August: ‘No signs of a blue whale today. However, we saw a minke whale and a humpback. The minke whale was really close to our boat and was even swimming belly-up! What an amazing experience to watch! We also saw two big pods of playful dolphins.’
In September, you might still see blue whales, but it’s not very likely to spot them on one single tour at this time of the year. Weather: 77°F (average high) and 1 rainy day. Sighting report from one tour: ‘Again a calm sea and great visibility on our morning tour. That’s why we could easily spot some spouts in a distance. Two humpback whales produced these. Both were later close enough to our vessel for stunning photos and an unforgettable sight. Additionally, we happened to come across a megapod of about 1000 common dolphins!’
In October, you may come across humpback whales and possibly some rare whale sightings, as well as pods of dolphins of course. Weather: 75°F (average high) and 3 rainy days. Sighting example: ‘A passenger spotted a spout in a greater distance. We identified a humpback whale which approached our boat later, providing a stunning sight! We also saw pods of dolphins and one hammerhead shark during our tour.’
November has a good chance of seeing humpback whales as they migrate south. While rare, it’s also possible to spot exotic species like killer whales. Weather: 70°F (average high) and 4 rainy days. Sightings report: ‘The weather and sea conditions, as well as the sightings, were spectacular today. We encountered a total of eight(!) humpback whales on our morning tour. We observed their mighty spouts and took some incredible photos!’
In December, the grey whale season starts in San Diego. The whales leave their feeding area in Alaska waters, migrating to the south along the coast off San Diego. It's also possible to see humpback whales and other species in December.
Weather: 66°F (average high) and 6 rainy days. Sighting report: ‘Besides pods of dolphins greeting us, we spotted two southbound gray whales on this tour right before Christmas. They didn’t get too close to our boat but we were able to take enough amazing photos!’
Winter and Spring Whale Watching
A gray whale in San Diego waters
- Season/Months: Mid-December until late April
- Whales: Gray Whale
- Recent Sighting Record: It’s not uncommon that you may see a pair of gray whales. It gets even better: Recently in a January, the passengers on one tour spotted 20(!) gray whales. That’s absolutely breathtaking!
Every winter and into spring, the magnificent gray whale (up to 20,000 of them!) migrates south from Alaska down to Baja, California. That’s about 10,000 miles. The gray whale is huge – about the width of a basketball court (50 feet) and weighing up to 40 tons. To see them in the wild is truly a treat. Their goal is to reach the warmer waters so that the females can give birth to their calves. Then, when their offspring are strong enough, they head back north to Alaska around April.
San Diego whale watching in January is when things just start to heat up in the whale-watching world. A telltale sign that the Grey Whale is close by is the spout of water you will see off in the distance. The curious ones will come right up to the boat, and your heart wells with excitement to see such a humongous and mysterious creature so close in the flesh. Other Baleen whales and Toothed whales are also common sightings. And let’s not forget the harbor seals, green sea turtles and many species of birds that may choose to say “Hi!” to you along the way.
Further, in the winter season, the whale watching in March is when things start to slow down for gray whale sightings as they start their journey back up north. But that’s not to say that things cannot be any less exciting! You just never know when you will come across one or an entire pod of them. You might even see moms with their calves in April.
Summer and Fall Whale Watching
A nearby blue whale. Stunning!
- Season/Months: May until August
- Whales: Blue Whale [Fin Whale: Peak Season, Bryde’s Whale (rare) in July/August/September]
“Look! That blue whale just surfaced right beside us, so close to the boat! WOW!!” That’s what I said to my teammate when we went on a tour in August three years ago. It was so stunning!
Each summer the blue whale migration brings hundreds of blue whales near the coast of San Diego. You can spot blue whales usually from May until August. Sometimes they can even be seen as early as April or later in September when the blue whale season ends. Theoretically, you may also spot them at any other time of the year near San Diego, but that’s not very likely.
The blue whale is even larger than the gray whale. In fact, it’s the largest animal on earth and even larger than a dinosaur! San Diego sees the largest group of 2,000 to 3,000 blue whales feeding off the coast during the summer months. They can get as long as 100 feet and spout columns of water up to 30 feet. So, you can imagine that this is a great way to spot one, even from miles away! These guys will migrate from Antarctica to California. That means pods of blue whales pass by the coast of San Diego as they travel further north. Blue whales are usually found further out to sea, whereas the gray whale tends to keep closer into the shores of California.
Year-Round Whale Watching | + Dolphins
A humpback whale near San Diego
- Whales: Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Minke Whale
- Dolphins: Common Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, Risso's Dolphins
- Recent Sighting Record: Usually it’s possible to come across one, two or even three Humpbacks on a single tour. However, a recent record for humpback whales was 7 on a tour in December 2017. Once we saw a humpback breaching at least 10 times throughout the tour!
- Recent Dolphin Sighting Record: Often you see dozens of dolphins. However, once there was megapod of about 1000 dolphins spotted on one tour!
Surfacing juvenile humpback whales are common during every season. They might even hang out in the same area of water for weeks. One of the glorious things to witness is a pod of dolphins feeding right alongside a whale or two. Humpbacks tend to move around the water a bit more than others, sometimes even zig-zagging close to your boat. Their spouting and particularly their breaching behavior are truly spectacular. Regardless if they are up close near the boat or in the distance. While you can spot humpbacks throughout the year, there is often a peak in March and April for them.
Minke whales are smaller and are able to swim underneath the boat as they are checking out the tourists (that is, if they are so inclined!) They have white sides and “Minke Mittens” which are white on its flippers.
Fin whales can be seen in San Diego waters especially in the summer months. They’re incredible it is the second-largest species on our planet after the blue whale! Its color is black or dark brownish-grey. However, the underside is white.
More ocean life: On a tour, you can experience even more fascinating ocean life such as White-sided Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, and the Common Dolphin. They are usually sighted on a boat tour every season. The only dolphins that are not all-year-round are the white-sided variety, which typically show up in the winter months. They migrate down here from the Pacific Northwest waters. Dolphins are very playful and eager to interact with the tour boats. Risso’s dolphins can also be found, although they are rarer in these waters. You may also witness sea lions, several species of sharks and many different sea birds. The Mola Mola fish, a species of ocean sunfish, is also spotted in summer off the shores of San Diego.
Rare Sightings | Orca (Killer Whale), False Killer Whale, Pilot Whale, etc.
On a San Diego whale watching tour you could even see some rare species. Some of them are spotted less than 6 times a year and some every other year only.
Whale Watching Tour Tips | Reservations
Photo provided by George Adkins. Thanks!
OUR TOP TIP: If you’re prone to seasickness or afraid of getting sick at sea, the Hornblower ship is simply the best option. On their large boat you experience less motion compared to others!
The great people at Hornblower give incredible San Diego whale-watching tours. Their large ship, friendly and very knowledgeable staff will make sure you have the most memorable trip ever, no matter what you see out in the water! And those who are prone to seasickness can take heart – their large, comfortable ship is gentler with stabilizers to reduce motion – giving you less chances to get sick and more chances of enjoying yourself as you search for the incredible marine life. The captain will work hard to make sure you get the best experience possible, and they even provide snacks and drinks while on board! Additionally, there are naturalists on board who are give very useful and fascinating background while adding interesting context to the sightings. Their whale watching tours are available two times per day: 9:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Each tour takes about 3.5 hours. More whale watching tour tips for San Diego will be added soon! In the meantime, check out the best overall tours in San Diego:
Where and Tips
Is Whale Watching in San Diego Worth It?
The great thing about going on a whale-watching tour is that the tour operators all communicate with each other about whale sightings, so that as many people as possible get the chance for awesome sightings! Going on a tour, there is plenty of time to watch them glide effortlessly through the water, interact with each other, and search for food. And of course, those playful dolphins are always around to entertain and delight! It’s really intriguing when you see humpback whales surrounded by hundreds of dolphins.
The interesting thing about the whales is that you never know what their behaviors are going to be when they encounter a tour boat, and some of them can definitely show off their skills with some gorgeous tail-flukes, spouting and even swimming upside down! And blue whale calves can sometimes be spotted swimming with their mothers in the spring.
The tour guides really know these whales and their migratory habits, and are happy to share them with you during the tour. You will learn so much about these majestic mammals and gain a great appreciation for the marine ecosystem here. Every day is a unique opportunity to find and interact with any one of hundreds of majestic sea creatures.
Some images provided by Cindy Croissant. Thanks! Please visit her on flickr!