When Is the Best Time
San Diego in California 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 offshore year-round and, depending on the season, different types of whales are more prominent than others.
Pre-book your whale watching tour, as capacities are limited: San Diego Whale and Dolphin Watching Cruise (printed or mobile voucher) Alternatively, check the availability above (you can still review everything after pressing ‘Book Now’)
In this complete San Diego whale watching guide, we provide you with crucial tips for each season, month, and the best whale watching times. Knowing these tips will make your trip unforgettable. Make sure to check out our guide and tips with sightings for each month in the middle and at the end of this article.
We opt to take whale watching tours in San Diego almost every year and are happy to share our experiences and tips with you in this article.
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.
Tip: Check out our newest unique whale watching guides for Monterey in California – Whale Watching Season Guide with 7 Must-Know Tips and for Maui in Hawaii – Whale Watching Season Tips.
Whale Watching Season | Overview
The San Diego whale watching season starts in mid-December and lasts until late April when up to 20,000 gray whales migrate through California waters. Additionally, humpback whales, fin whales, and minke whales can be spotted throughout the season.
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. Thus, San Diego is an outstanding year-round whale-watching destination.
What Is the Best Time of Day?
The best time of day 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.
What Is the Best Month?
The best month to go whale watching San Diego is in April. You can still spot migrating gray whales as well as the first blue whales if you are lucky. Additionally, humpback whales and even fin whales are present.
Can You See Orcas in San Diego
Orcas (killer whales) can be seen off the coast of San Diego year-round. However, they are rare, and sightings are only reported a couple of times each year on whale watching trips.
Is Whale Watching in San Diego Worth It?
A whale watching excursion in San Diego is worth it as the area has a high concentration of exciting whales. You can see gray whales, blue whales, or humpback whales. Additionally, you can spot dolphins, sea lions, and military ships on the boat tour. Adults and kids love this experience.
Going on a tour, there is plenty of time to watch the whales 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.
Whale Watching Tours | Winter – Spring – Summer – Fall
While almost every whale watching tour operator is great for spotting gray whales, we prefer Hornblower Tours (click the image above to check tour availability) for three reasons:
- They have excellent boats
- They have extremely experienced captains
- The staff from is extremely professional, knowledgeable and very friendly
Reserve your spot by clicking or touching the banner above or with the following link (provided via GetYourGuide with world-class customer service and mobile voucher or printed voucher): San Diego Whale Watching Tours by Hornblower | Year-Round
Pre-booking is highly recommended(!), as tours sell out quickly and you run the risk of not getting a spot. You’ll receive a mobile voucher which you can just leave on your smartphone to show later or print. Very convenient. However, you are free to try getting a ticket later, of course.
Yacht Whale Watching Tours | ‘The Yacht’
The best different whale watching tour on a yacht in spring, 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. Book well in advance: ‘The America’ – San Diego Whale Watching Cruise | May – November
The San Diego Whale Watching Seasons in Detail
Winter and Spring Whale Watching Seasons
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 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 the season starts to heat up in the whale-watching world. A telltale sign that the grey ehale 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 Seasons
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!
Summer is the season for blue whales in San Diego. 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 whale species 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 a 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.
Tip: Another fantastic location for spotting humpback whales in North America along the west coast is on a Vancouver Island whale watching tour. One of the best opportunities along the east coast is on a whale watching tour in Boston.
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 their 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
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.
Monthly Reports | San Diego Whale Sightings and Weather
You can check our San Diego whale watching calendar and the full guide with details for each month below. Please keep in mind, that the temperatures are land temperatures. It’s always a little colder on the ocean. Always dress in layers or bring an extra jacket. Experienced whale watchers book their tour in advance via Hornblower – San Diego Whale and Dolphin Cruise
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.
Our 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 report from our tour in May: ‘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.
Our personal sightings report from 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.
Our sighting report from a September 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.
What we saw in October: ‘A passenger spotted a spout in a greater distance. We identified a humpback whale that 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!’
Whale Watching Tour Tips | Reservations
Photo provided by George Adkins. Thanks!
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, we experienced a lot 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 fewer 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 give very useful and fascinating backgrounds 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.
Must-Do Activities in San Diego | Besides Whale Watching
If you visit San Diego for a whale watching tour (also check out our San Diego – Best Time Guide), there is at least one thing you’ll definitely regret if you didn’t do it: Visit the USS Midway Museum. Plan about 4 hours for the visit. Even after 4 hours nobody ever gets bored there. 3 hours is the absolute minimum. Save money for all activities with the San Diego Pass (click the banner above).
If you’re planning to visit other places in California, besides San Diego, read everything about the best times to visit California. It’s a complete guide with tips for each month.
Why USS Midway? The USS Midway is an incredible experience and more than a wonderful history lesson. Most visitors are dying to go back after their first visit. Other activities we highly recommend, are the Patriot Thrill Rides and the classic San Diego Harbor cruise (see below). For the USS Midway always book the ‘Skip the line ticket’! That way you can proceed directly to the front gate:
What’s So Great About the Tours?
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!
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!