Whale watching may get more of the attention here in San Diego but dolphin watching is just as fun and exciting. As many on our catamaran charters have seen, these amazing marine mammals love to jump and play, making them a joy to watch in their natural habitat. Here’s what you need to know about dolphin watching in San Diego.

Dolphin Basics

There are many different species of dolphin. They all fall into the class of cetaceans, a group that also includes porpoises and toothed whales. The defining factors of this group of sea-dwelling mammals are a single or double blowhole on the top of the head, two flippers at the front of the body, and tail flukes that swing vertically to propel the animal through the water.

Within the dolphin family, you’ll also see cone-shaped teeth that interlock with one another, as well as a dorsal fin that curves towards the back of the body.

Types of Dolphins You Might See in San Diego

dolphin watching san diego

There are four primary types of dolphins you are likely to see in San Diego, CA, though other species may make rare appearances from time to time.

Common Dolphins

Common dolphins can have either short or long beaks. They are typically gray in color with white on the belly. They also have distinctive light gray and tan hourglass-shaped markings on their sides. Fully grown, they generally reach about 7.5 to 8.5 feet in length and weigh about 300 pounds. In general, males are larger than females.

You can find common dolphins all over the world as they can thrive in both tropical and cold waters. They tend to congregate in herds of around 100 dolphins so they are typically easy to spot when they are in the area. They’ll even join mixed-species groups, including other dolphin species, whales, and even sea lions.

Common dolphins are active and playful, often leaping high above the water or riding the wakes of ships. This makes them incredibly exciting to watch. In San Diego, you’ll typically see the long-beaked variety as they tend to come in closer to the shore. On cruises that take you farther out to sea, you’ll have a greater chance of spotting short-beaked common dolphins.

Common Bottlenose Dolphins

The bottlenose dolphin is the species that most people first imagine when they think about dolphins. The species is known for being acrobatic. You’ll often see them jumping out of the water, even performing somersaults! Because of this, bottlenose dolphins are often featured in movies, TV and aquarium shows.

Bottlenose dolphins are usually gray with light bellies. Their most defining feature is the prominent beak, which is what gives the species its name. Adult dolphins of this species typically grow to about 10 to 14 feet in length, weighing in at around 1,400 pounds. Like the common dolphin, males tend to be larger than females. However, the bottlenose dolphins that come in closest to shore tend to be on the smaller side, with the larger ones staying farther out to sea.

These dolphins like to travel in groups of fewer than 100, and they’ll often switch from one group to another. They can be found all over the world in both warm and cold waters. They prey on fish, squid, and crustaceans so they can find plenty of food in the large kelp forest just off San Diego’s coast.

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins

As you may have guessed from the name, Pacific white-sided dolphins live only in the Pacific Ocean, particularly in the colder waters in the northern hemisphere. They are incredibly flexible in their herd configurations, with groups ranging in size from just a dozen animals all the way up to several thousand. They’ll even mix with other dolphin species, whales and sea lions. Although you may be able to spot Pacific white-sided dolphins in San Diego County throughout the year, you’ll have the best luck from November to April.

Like many other dolphin species, Pacific white-sided dolphins are playful and acrobatic, often leaping and somersaulting in front of boats. You can distinguish them from other dolphins by their hooked, black-and-white dorsal fins, as well as their black, gray and white patterned beaks. They grow to about 5 to 8 feet in length and weigh between 300 and 450 pounds, with the males falling at the larger end of the spectrum and the females at the smaller.

Risso’s Dolphins

Risso’s dolphins are among the larger dolphin species, often coming in between 650 and 1,100 pounds and about 10 to 12 feet in length. Although they don’t have distinctive beaks, you can easily recognize this type of dolphin by the prevalent white scarring all over their bodies. Risso’s dolphins often scratch themselves on their fellow dolphins’ teeth and also get bitten by the beaks of the squids on which they prey. In many cases, older adults will be nearly completely covered in scars, rendering them almost fully white.

You’ll find these dolphins all over the world in both tropical and cold waters, though they tend to prefer the cooler, deeper waters far from the shore. However, they do come in closer to the coast on occasion, giving you a greater chance of spotting them. Their groups tend to be smaller than those of other dolphin species, typically including no more than 30 dolphins. They love to slap their flukes and flippers on the surface of the water, and people interested in San Diego yacht rental often see them surfing the wakes behind boats.

Dolphin Watching FAQs

Q: What is the difference between a whale and a dolphin?

Dolphins belong to a suborder of whales with teeth. The largest member of this group is the orca, or “killer whale.” Dolphins have distinctly elongated beak and a curved dorsal fin. These mammals are also the friendliest of the mammals and they often seek humans out. When you go on a dolphin watch, you can expect to see different types of whales, dolphins, and other marine life common to the area. If the dolphins approach the boat, we will stop and cut off the motor so you can enjoy an even closer visit.

Q: Are all the dolphins I will see the same?

No, there are different types of dolphins off the coast of San Diego including Pacific white-sided, bottle-nosed, Risso’s, and common dolphins. At times, they can be seen in large herds. San Diego is also home to a number of whale species including gray, blue, humpback, fin, and minke whales. Do some research on the different species to get more familiar with the diversity of whales and dolphins that you might spot!

There are many species of dolphins and they come in a broad range of colors. Although those you will see during your San Diego dolphin watching tour are limited to a select number of species, there are many fun and interesting facts that will add to your experience.

Q: How do I prepare for my trip?

  • Temperatures on the water can vary a great deal. Wear layers and remove as needed for comfort. Bring a good waterproof camera with a wrist or shoulder strap and a zoom lens for taking pictures of the dolphins and other marine life. You also want a camera for any other activities included in your customized San Diego Dolphin Watching tour.
  • Apply sunscreen and take it along for touchups regardless of the temperatures. You will probably spend the majority of the tour on the deck where you will be exposed to UV light from the sun. Take sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun. Polarized lenses are a good choice since they reduce the glare off of the water.
  • Wear comfortable shoes that have a non-slip rubber sole.
  • A hooded waterproof jacket is a good idea, too. It will help keep you from getting wet from the ocean spray and you will have it on-hand if it rains.
  • Don’t let motion sickness ruin your day. If you have never been aboard a boat, you may want to take some motion sickness medication just in case beforehand. If you take OTC medications like Dramamine, you will need to take them at least an hour prior to the tour. If you are prone to motion sickness, there are prescription medications available that can help. See your doctor in advance to prepare. Also, avoid spicy foods and alcohol before boarding.
  • Put everything in a waterproof tote or backpack.

Q: Is there a specific “dolphin watching season?”

No, there are dolphins off the coast of San Diego during every season of the year. The same is true for whales. The only difference is that you are more likely to see certain species during some seasons. You can also plan your tour during any time of day. You don’t have to get up before daybreak to increase your chances of spotting the dolphins.

Q: What is a catamaran and why is it a better way to see dolphins?

A catamaran is a boat with two hulls of equal size and a wide beam. The structure makes it a more stable vessel than other types of boats. You can comfortably stay on the deck for hours without losing your footing. Catamaran sailing is highly recommended for anyone looking to explore the San Diego Bay and coastline.

The Adventuress also has the comfortable interior of a luxury yacht. Large, panoramic windows give those who prefer not to be in the center of the action another option. It’s the perfect way for doers and watchers to have a great experience while San Diego dolphin watching.

Q: Do you allow kids on the trip?

We welcome kids and adults of all ages and activity levels. Activities like coloring books and crayons are a good idea for younger kids who might get bored waiting for the dolphins to show up.

Q: How far out to sea do you go?

Coastal dolphins are usually found close to the coastline. We don’t usually go any farther than five miles from the coast or eight at the most for dolphin watching tours. How far we travel depends on the specifics of your charter.

Q: What else is there for my group to do?

We offer a variety of options that let you customize your tour to your specific needs. We recommend 3 to 4 hours for dolphin watching. Take the Ultimate Expedition package so your more adventurous guests can take runs riding a Rigid Inflatable Boat like the Navy Seals use!

Another option is our Anchor and Play Team Building Challenge. It is as much fun for family reunions as it is for corporate events. Activities include standup paddleboarding relay races, beach games, and a kayak obstacle course.

For the watchers who prefer the comfort of the indoors, catering and entertainment can keep them happy. We will work with you to customize an all-day excursion or sort dolphin watching tour that ensures every member of your party will have the best possible experience.

Q: Why Choose Adventuress Luxury Catamaran?

We understand that every person that goes San Diego dolphin watching doesn’t have the same expectation. We offer the best possible experience for everyone aboard the Adventuress. We also work to personalize your experience and include the activities that will make everyone’s experience a memorable one.

Dolphin Watching on the Adventuress Luxury Catamaran

The best way to see dolphins in San Diego is to go out on a cruise. Here at Adventuress Luxury Catamaran, we offer whale watching tours throughout the year, and you’ll often see some or all of the above dolphin varieties during the course of your tour. Our experienced guides know all of the best spots to see these amazing animals so your chances of spotting them are high when you cruise with us. We welcome you to get in touch with us today to learn more about our tours and make your reservation.