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Guide to Spring Whale Watching in California

Whales are miraculous creatures that will stun you no matter how many times you come across them. However, when it comes to whale watching, many questions arise. When can you see whales in California? Luckily, the answer is, all year round! Where is the best place to watch whales in California? Whales travel all along the California coast, with San Diego being one of the most popular locations to watch them. If you’re left wondering what is the best month to go whale watching in San Diego, that answer depends on what whale species you’re looking forward to seeing. Below we will discuss the different types of whales you may come across when participating in a spring whale watching excursion.

Gray Whales

The gray whale is a baleen whale that can be found along the California coast between the months of February through April as they begin their migration northbound from Mexico to Alaska. During this time, mothers travel with their calves, lingering farther behind the rest. They travel slowly and closer to the shore line, making this an optimal time for whale watching. The gray whale reaches about 49 feet in length and weighs 40 short tons. They have a darker grey color and are distinguished by the white patterns that cover their bodies, which are a combination of scars left by parasites that feed off of them as well as barnacles that live on the whale. These fascinating sea creatures have two blowholes on top which help create their distinctive heart shaped blow. While lacking a dorsal fin, the gray whale has 6-12 dorsal crenulations, which are small raised bumps on the midline. The gray whale populations are distributed in an eastern North Pacific while unfortunately being an endangered species in western North Pacific.

Humpback Whales

The humpback whale is another species of baleen whale. They travel from the months of April to early November along the central California coast. Humpback whales range from 39-52 feet in length while weighing 28-33 short tons. Humpbacks are very distinctive with their large, stocky body shapes. They have large humps on their backs and elongated pectoral fins, which can take up a third of their body length, making them the longest fins of any cetacean. Their black dorsal coloring is accompanied by tubercles, which are knob-like hair follicles that run along their head and lower jaw. They have beautiful fluked tails which put on a show when they decide to dive into deeper water.


Orcas, also known as killer whales, are toothed whales that belong to the oceanic dolphin family. During the months of April through June, the Orcas travel from Southern California up to the Santa Cruz area. Their appearance is very distinct and widely known with their black backs, white on both their sides and chest, and white patches above and behind each of their eyes. Their bodies are robust, carrying a rather large dorsal fin of 5.9 feet tall. They have extremely strong teeth and powerful jaws. Their feeding habits range, with some feeding on fish while others choose the more rigorous route of hunting other marine mammals, such as seals, dolphins, and sometimes attacking the calves of baleen whales. This species lives freely as apex predators, with no animals trying to prey on them. Orcas are social creatures and have very vocal behaviors.

Common Dolphins, Pacific White Sided Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, & Risso’s Dolphin

Alongside the whales, you might also get the chance to see a variety of dolphins. The common dolphins are found around the entirety of the California coast, all year round. They have dark grey backs with white hourglass markings on their sides. The Pacific white sided dolphins are unique with a snout shape as opposed to a beak. They have very distinct black and white colorations. The bottlenose dolphins are most commonly found along the California coast between San Francisco and San Diego. They are characterized as having short, stubby beaks and grey bodies, ranging from light to dark. Risso’s dolphins are very large, weighing up to 1,000 lbs. They have intricate scars resulting from various battles with other sea creatures, including their prey: squid.