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Gray Whale Watching Season in San Diego

a man riding a wave on top of a body of water

Whale watching is one of the most popular attractions to the San Diego area, and you can see these wonderful animals from the shore or from tour boats that take you close enough to get some spectacular photos. As you consider your tour options, keep in mind that different whale species are visible at different times of year. If you want to see gray whales, you’ve only got about four months before the season is over and all 26,000 of them have moved on. 

Gray Whale Watching Migration Period

The season for gray whale migration starts in mid-December, just a week or so before Christmas. Those first few weeks can be unpredictable, but by January the season is in full swing. It lasts until April, petering out over the month to end within the last week to ten days before May starts most years. There are always some exceptions that push these dates one way or another in odd years, but not by a lot. Nature’s rhythms tend to be consistent when it comes to large animal migrations like this one.

Best Time of Day To See Them

These whales are swimming throughout the day and night without stopping, so the time of day doesn’t matter. You could see a whale from shore at any time of day. There are plenty of places to see gray whales from the shore, and they are also great for humpbacks and blue whales if you come back for those seasons.

  •     Torrey Pines State Reserve
  •     Birch Aquarium’s beach shoreline
  •     Cabrillo National Monument

Nature trails are particularly good for spotting whales because they each have multiple vantage points, allowing you to find great areas for finding whales. With the right telephoto lens, you can even get great shots of these whales as they slowly make their way along the coast. It’s also worth noting that whale watching tours like those at Next Level Sailing take you close enough to the animals to see them at any time of day while keeping a safe and respectful distance.

animal on the water

What To Look Out For

Since there are multiple whale species you can see from shore in the San Diego area, you need to know what to look out for when spotting gray whales, especially if you’re hunting for photographs. Here are the distinguishing characteristics that set them apart from humpbacks, blue whales, and other species.

  •     Streamlined body with a narrow and tapered head
  •     The gray color of the whale’s body overall, of course
  •     Telltale spouting behavior in the distance when whales are near
  •     White color from hundreds of barcles 
  •     Arched jawline with the upper jaw overlapping the lower slightly
  •     Dimples along the upper jawline

If the whale you spot does not have these characteristics, you may have seen a humpback whale. Baleen and toothed whales are also common throughout the year. Blue whale season does not overlap with gray whale season, so you will not see both on the same day unless there is some truly extraordinary occurrence. While gray whales commonly move individually or in pairs, we occasionally find them in larger groups of five or seven. 

Other Important Whale Watching Facts

San Diego is the best place to go whale watching! All the whale watching boats in the area work together to find whales once we are out on the ocean, giving the customers the best opportunity to have fabulous views of whales. Next Level Sailing has the highest record of spotting gray whales and we have been in the business for over 15 years. We look forward to bringing you out on the ocean!