The Ultimate Guide to Whale Watching in San Diego

Every year over 20,000 Pacific gray whales travel between 10,000 and 15,000 miles roundtrip from Alaska’s chilly Chukchi and Bering Seas to the warm lagoons of Baja, California, December to mid-April. The lengthiest migration of any mammal on the planet, San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline is right along their path, making it one of the best places to watch them on their incredible journey.

As we’re currently in the midst of the season, there is no better time to learn everything there is to know about these magnificent creatures from their history, appearance, and habits to the best viewing spots and tours. Here is everything you need to know about whale watching in San Diego.

A Quick Look Back

There are two populations of gray whales that make this trek past San Diego each year – the Eastern North Pacific and the Western North Pacific. Both populations were nearly annihilated during the mid-19th century and again in the early 20th century due to overhunting. Their numbers were reduced from thousands to hundreds in both instances.

Though they were described as the “devil fish” by commercial fisherman due to their reputation for fighting back and overturning boats, it wasn’t until the 1940s when they stood a fighting chance at survival. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) crafted a worldwide agreement that provided them with full protection.

Over the next 80 years they managed to replenish their numbers to between 19,000 and 23,000, nearly their original population. Scientists believe they managed to avoid total extinction both times due to their ease of finding mates. They frequently gather in little lagoons, a factor that also made their slaughter an easy task.

Today, gray whales remain fully protected by law, and tourists who have had the opportunity to view them in Mexico’s breeding grounds regard them as friendly and curious.

How to Identify a Gray Whale

As their name suggests, gray whales feature mottled gray skin, tapered heads, and massive, but sleek, bodies. They do not have dorsal fins; however, they have a dorsal hump with six to 12 knuckles that extend into their flukes (tails).

Adult gray whales can reach up to 45 feet in length with a weight of up to 33 tons. Calves are typically 15 feet at birth and weigh one ton. Though not scientifically confirmed with complete accuracy, they are believed to have a life span of anywhere between 55 and 80 years.

A Closer Look at Their Identifiers and Behaviors

  • Thar She Blows – When warm, damp air breathed out of the whales’ lungs meets the cold air at the ocean’s surface, what is referred to as a spout or blow is created. It’s essentially that big gust of water you see shooting out of the “blow” hole on top of their heads. It can typically reach a height of fifteen feet and can be seen for about five seconds. This happens every three to six minutes after they’ve returned to the surface from their deep dives. They do this three to five times each time they surface, separated by 30-50 seconds.
  • Knuckled Back & Footprint – When you are close enough to a whale and the lighting is just right, it is possible for you to get a glimpse of the whale’s back after it blows. It’s typically black or gray, shiny, and has a rough knuckled raised area along its spine. After revealing a shot of their back, they’ll submerge and you will notice an elongated, flat, oval of tranquil water referred to as a footprint in the area where the whale was spotted.
  • The Tails (Flukes) – Before whales make each deep dive, they often display their 12-foot-wide tails. These flukes have no bones and are only connected to the whales’ tail muscles and body by a row of tendons. The weight of their tails is used to help them deep dive, so you’ll be able to spot them surfacing right before they go under the water.
  • Breach & Splash – Though scientists don’t know the exact reason for this characteristic, gray whales are known to occasionally heave themselves out of the water before plunging back in with an astounding splash. This is known as breaching and it’s truly one of the most exciting and exhilarating sights to behold. So much so that sometimes other whales in the area will imitate this behavior, so be on the lookout for their cousins giving it a try.

Where Do They Come from, Where Do They Go?

You might be asking yourself why gray whales make such a lengthy trip every year traveling from Alaska to Mexico, and back again. The answer is a simple one, warmer waters are better for mating and calving. Female gray whales meet up in the warm lagoons in Baja, California, to give birth to their babies, and males come to the lagoons to mate with females. The mothers and their calves remain in these warm waters for the spring to ensure the calves gain enough strength and wherewithal to endure the lengthy journey back home to the chilly waters of Alaska.

Whale Watching Boat Tours

The most common way to go whale watching in San Diego is via one of the many boat tour companies located near Point Loma, the San Diego Bay, the downtown Harbor, and La Jolla Cove. They offer up-close-and-personal experiences with these beautiful creatures, many of which can last up to 3.5 hours.

Legendary Hornblower Cruises feature an informational story provided by an onboard naturalist describing the marine life you’ll see along the way. Each of these yachts offers an abundance of indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a full bar and a snack bar. During the cruise you’ll typically spot gray whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, and a variety of other marine life.

San Diego Whale Watch is another popular whale-watching boat company with positive ratings on review sites.

If you don’t manage to spot a gray whale on your first trip out, don’t fret. Many of these companies offer up a free trip when this happens, ensuring you’ll still get the chance to see these majestic creatures.

Whale Watching Kayak Tours

Another popular way to go whale-watching is strictly for thrill seekers. La Jolla Cove kayak tours offer kayak whale-watching. There are several tour companies in this area that provide these encounters. It’s one of the most intimate ways to experience the migration of gray whales. Tours take place daily, weather permitting.

As this is the most up-close-and-personal whale-watching experience there is, you’ll want to brush up on safety tips so you don’t find yourself in a precarious or illegal position. Lucky Sol Sailing provides some excellent tips to ensure you stay safe while out on the water.

Whale Watching on Land

While boat and kayak excursions are among the most popular ways to go whale-watching in San Diego, they are not the only option. If you prefer to stay dry with your feet comfortably planted on the ground, there are several amazing lookouts that provide excellent views of the gray whale migration path. Here are the top areas to spot a gray whale in San Diego.

  • Cabrillo National Monument The western overlooks at this seaside oasis offer some of the most incredible vistas and best opportunities to see gray whale. The old Point Loma Lighthouse and the park’s Whale Overlook provide the best viewing any time of day. Gray whales swim 24 hours so it’s easy to spot them, especially if you have binoculars. If you don’t have your own, the Visitor Center at the park sells them during whale season.
  • Torrey Pines State Reserve Situated on the bluffs above Torrey Pines State Beach, the Torrey Pines Reserve features 1,750 miles of gorgeous hiking trails, indigenous wildlife, and of course the legendary Torrey Pine trees. Its magnificent coastal wilderness coupled with mild family-friendly trails makes it one of the best spots to whale and dolphin watch. The 1.4-mile Razor Point Trail and ¾-mile Beach Trail are the best bet to catch a glimpse of the migration. Both trails hug the cliffs, never straying too far from water views. Feel free to wait for a sighting from one of the benches along the way.

Where to Look

The Cabrillo National Monument and Torrey Pines State Reserve offer the best chance at spotting whales during the spring migration, however, you may spot them almost anywhere along the San Diego coastline. Since they are moving south to their breeding grounds in mainland Mexico, you should look west toward the San Diego Bay.

Gray whales move at a steady clip, roughly five miles per hour. While some will swim close to shore, most stay out about three-quarters of a mile out from shore in the region that spreads from the kelp beds. In late spring, they migrate back north to Alaska, but they are typically too far out to spot from the park and reserve, so it’s best to take a boat tour during this time.

What to Expect

If you do spot a whale, keep in mind that they are migrating south, so once you get their location you can expect they will resurface again to the south. After you watch a single gray whale for a bit, you’ll be able to pick up on their specific breath rhythm and dives making it easy for you to figure out where they will surface next.

The Birch Aquarium at Scripps offers some excellent guidelines for what to expect when whale watching. For instance, gray whales commonly travel alone or in pods of two and three. Occasionally you’ll see a large group traveling together during the peak of the migration season which is now (mid-January), so keep your eyes peeled.

Whale Watching Doesn’t End in the Spring

Gray whale watching excursions tend to be over by mid-April, but that doesn’t mean whale watching ends. In fact, you’ll just be rewarded with a different type of whale-watching experience from spring to summer – that of the elusive blue whales.

The largest creatures on earth, blue whales are considered the most endangered of the great whales, but due to an influx of krill found in Southern California waters, they’ve become easier to spot off our stunning coastline. Thousands of them migrate to our waters every spring and summer to feed off the large amount of krill.

The best time to spot blue whales is between mid-June and September, but there are occasional spottings here and there beginning in March.

These incredible mammals give away their location by spouting a 30-foot-tall column of water from their blow holes, which can be seen from miles away. With that said, they typically swim farther out than their cousins, the gray whale, so it’s best to book a boat excursion instead of trying to view them from the shore.

Additionally, you’ll find finback whales, minke whales, humpback whales, and other interesting whale breeds, as well as dolphins and other marine life in the waters during this time.