San Diego whale watching has become a premier attraction for nature and animal lovers around the world. Situated along migration paths, with its natural deep water harbor, fantastic beaches, and pleasant, mild climate, it is no wonder that this Pacific Coastal city offers many ways to see these majestic, gentle giants with your own eyes.

Which Whales Will You See Around San Diego?

In San Diego there are regular sightings of five types of whales in particular: Humpback, Gray, Blue, Minke, and Fin, all of which are baleen whales. This means that instead of teeth, they have baleen plates with bristles to trap their food as they filter the water back out. The Minke Whale is the only one on this list that is not endangered.

The Humpback Whale

The Humpback Whale is known for its singing, which can be heard miles away, and its acrobatics. Dark gray or black, with white patches on the stomach, big fins, and tubercles (knobs) on its head, its back is mostly flat but it has a small dorsal fin towards the tail end. When the whale arches its back, however, it appears to have a hump.

For more cool Humpback Whale facts take a look at the Humpback Whale Facts Page.

The Gray Whale

The Gray Whale gets its name from its dark slate gray base color and lighter gray patches or mottling pattern. It is often covered in white barnacles and light gray and white scars made by parasites. Instead of a dorsal fin, the Gray Whale has one or more small dorsal humps down the far end of its back. When it hunts, it sticks its head in ocean floor sediment to stir it up before sucking in the water.

Gray Whales will venture into shallower waters.

The Blue Whale

The Blue Whale is the largest animal in the world. Not surprisingly, Blue Whales are very rarely attacked.

The Blue Whale’s calls can be heard many miles away and from under the surface of the water. Despite its monumental size, this baleen whale feeds on krill and plankton. The distinctive throat grooves allow the throat area to expand and engulf masses of krill.

Blue Whales are more a grayish blue rather than a deep blue.

The Minke Whale

The Minke Whale is the second smallest of the baleen whales. Its upper body is black or dark gray and its underside is white; its flippers are dark with a white patch or band on them. The Minke has a sickle shaped dorsal fin far down its back. Occasionally, it will have a light chevron on its back.

The Minke can stay underwater for close to 20 minutes. When it comes up for air, you should be able to see most of its back, dorsal fin and blowholes.

The Fin Whale

The Fin Whale is the second largest baleen whale. It has a V-shaped head that is flat on top and there is a distinctive ridge along the back. The Fin Whale also has pleats on the underside of its body, from the lower jaw to the navel. The back and sides of a Fin Whale are light gray to brown-black. It has two lighter colored chevrons that point towards its tail and the underside of its flippers are white.


Orcas are actually a type of dolphin. Formerly known as “Killer Whales”, these fierce hunters have also been called “Wolves of the Sea”.

Orca pods can have up to 25 whales. Like lions and wolves, they hunt cooperatively, making them deadly and cunning Apex Predators. They eat fish, marine mammals, and even land mammals like polar bears. They also hunt and eat whales.

Other Animals You Might See

Whales are not the only wildlife you will see frolicking in or around the water in San Diego County. If you’re lucky, you will get to see a number of animals with your own eyes including dolphins, sea lions and more.

Best Ways to Watch Whales


It is said that anywhere along the shore with a lighthouse or the word “point” in its name is potentially a good place to watch for whales, since Gray Whales and Orcas often come close enough to land. Particularly popular onshore whale watching spots in San Diego include: the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the Cabrillo National Monument, and Torrey Pines State Reserve. The key is to watch the water’s surface for whale spouts and zoom in with binoculars.

In a Boat

Most companies offer 2-4 hour whale watching trips. You are accompanied by a marine biologist, naturalist, or similar expert, who can identify the animals and provide lots of interesting information about them as you sail. Some places even offer special educational trips for kids.

To up the probability of seeing more animals, many people seek out longer boat tours – around 8 hours, which can take passengers into deeper waters. Private yacht charters are also a good means to customize your whale watching experience. Some companies supply a naturalist guide for whale watching charters.

The boat will likely be a catamaran, trimaran or monohull boat. They all have their pros and cons. Catamarans tend to be very stable and designed to be comfortable.

For a more intimate whale watching experience, Adventuress Luxury Catamaran offers an “Ultimate Expedition Package” that allows people to take a Navy SEAL Rigid Inflatable Boat from the catamaran to get even more up close and personal.

Preparing for a Whale Watching Cruise

You will be on the water and exposed to the elements for several hours. Make sure you dress in layers, even in the summer time; you will thank yourself when the wind picks up and it suddenly feels cold. One of those layers should be waterproof; there is a chance you could be sprayed by water when the boat catches a wave or if you’re lucky, because a whale is splashing around really close by.

Bring sun protection – sunscreen with at least 30 SPF, sun hat, sunglasses. Not only do you want to prevent sunburns, but it’s hard to see bubbles or a sleek silhouette at the surface of the water if you’re blinded by the sun and squinting.

When you book the trip, make sure you know what kind of amenities there will be. Some cruises provide snacks. If your trip does not include a meal, you will want to pack one beforehand.

Bring a book or something else to keep you occupied during the down time. You don’t know when whales will appear.

If you are prone to seasickness, or aren’t sure if you might get seasick, take something like Dramamine at least an hour prior to departure. The back of the boat may also be the best place for you to hang out.

Bring a decent camera and the longest lens you have for it. Most of the sightings will likely be a distance away,so you will want to be able to zoom and catch as much of it in frame for posterity.

Best Whale Watching Seasons

The actual Whale Watching Season is between December and April, but you can whale watch all year round in San Diego. Here is a helpful breakdown by season, based on past sightings, of the best whale watching times. Gray and Blue Whale birthing and feeding times tend to be the best bet for seeing all sorts of whales so it is best to book tours at those times..

WINTER (December-March): Gray*, Humpback, Fin and Minke Whales

  • About 20,000 Gray Whales make their migration from Alaska to California to give birth to their young, so this may be the best time for watching Gray Whales. Peak Gray Whale watching occurs in mid-January; people have recorded seeing roughly eight per hour.

SPRING (April-June): Humpback, Fin, Minke and Blue Whales

SUMMER (July-August): Blue*, Humpback, Fin and Minke Whales

  • From about mid-June through September, 2000-3000 Blue Whales feed off the coast. They are further out than Gray Whales, so you have a better chance of seeing them up close on the longer boat trips. Otherwise, they are actually the easiest to see from far away since they can spout water up to 30 ft in the air.

FALL (September-November): Blue, Fin and Humpback Whales and Orcas

Book Your Reservation Today!

Observing whales and other marine life in their own habitat is so much more fulfilling than seeing them in captivity. You will never look at the ocean the same way again. Book your awe inspiring excursion now.