Whale watching tours from San Diego offer one of the truly magnificent ocean spectacles. From Canada all the way down the Pacific coast of North America you’ll find majestic sea creatures piercing the waves as they cavort. Many whales live off the coast of San Diego – you can usually see orcas, minke whales, fin whales and the occasional humpback in their ocean habitat throughout the year – while gray and blue whales can both be spotted during their migrations in order to give birth, feed or mate. It is one of a handful of destinations along this vast stretch of coast where the whales tend to accumulate in larger numbers.
But please note that, although San Diego’s whale watching tours officially operate year-round, the best time to see this natural phenomenon is during the official migration seasons. For gray whales this runs from December to April, while mid-June through September is the time to see blue whales, the planet’s largest mammals. More than 20,000 grays and around 2,000 blues (which are far more endangered) are thought to make this lengthy journey past San Diego annually. Whale watching tours from San Diego are numerous and competitive. Here are our favorite five tours, when taking into account many variables like price, duration and safety.
FROM: $45/per person
Over its 3.5 hours, this excellent value cruise is about more than simply whale watching. Although that may undoubtedly be the highlight, there wouldn’t be whales if the rest of the food chain that sustains them weren’t also thriving. As such, your captain will be on the lookout for sealions, large fish like sunfish (mola mola), and some of the more striking marine birds like pelicans. The pods of dolphins are impossible to miss though, with no fewer than four species of dolphin abundant in the Californian Pacific. Better yet, if you don’t see at least one whale or dolphin during the cruise, you’ll get a free pass to come back and try again.
From $50/ per person
Another enduringly popular whale watching tour from San Diego is this one, which heads out onto the ocean in a two-story yacht that offers excellent views over the water. These four-hour cruises depart either in the morning or afternoon and are led by ocean experts who not only have that sixth sense for the creatures you’ll be hoping to see, but who can also unpack the complexities of these beautiful watery eco-systems. As with all of the tours on this list, folks who are prone to seasickness may struggle given the duration of these tours, particularly on choppy sea days.
From $30/ per person
The lowest priced tour on this list operates using a smaller boat – The Legend – than some of the bigger cruises. This has both its pros and cons, such as a more personalized tour experience, although being closer to the water without a second deck does mean that distant sightings are harder to see. On the plus side, closer sightings are all the more thrilling if and when they happen. As with all tours on this list, there’s no way to plan for the randomness of nature, so each tour will have different sightings. This tour lasts approximately three hours.
From $52/ per person
Gray whales, blue whales, minke whales, they can all be hard to distinguish to the untrained eye. That’s why having a marine biologist on board your whale watching tour is handy, not only to spot and differentiate the species, but also to learn more about their lives and habits. This three-hour tour operates from Mission Bay, which provides faster access to the open ocean than many of the other tours operating from the marinas along San Diego Bay. Mission Bay is on the north side of San Diego towards La Jolla though. Like most tours on this list, the departure point is best reached using your own vehicle.
From $71/ per person
Heading further north still to La Jolla, you’ll find the stunning cliff fronted La Jolla Bay, with its underwater park attracting scuba divers and whale watchers in equal measure. And what better way to slip into the laid-back vibe of this section of the San Diego area than to eschew motorized vehicles altogether and head out onto the Pacific in a kayak? Not only is this more eco-friendly, but it’s perhaps the most intimate way there is to interact with the whales. Tour guides lead the way, ensuring safety as you leave the shore behind. Whale sightings aren’t guaranteed, but dolphins and sea lions are common sightings and equally impressive to paddle alongside.