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The Best Time for Whale Watching in San Diego


San Diego offers a glistening coastline lively with animal activity year-round. Revel in the best whale watching experience from mid-December through April as gray whales migrate from feeding grounds in Alaska to Baja California and back. More than 20,000 gray whales complete this 10,000-mile round-trip journey every year. In Baja California, female grays give birth to their calves, spending time in the warm waters before heading north again in the early spring. With 70 miles of the San Diego coastline directly in the migration path, you can catch great views late in the season as females take their calves back north with them. According to the Birch Aquarium in San Diego, gray whales tend to travel alone or in pods of two or three and more of the mammals may be seen traveling together during peak migration season at about six mph. These majestic mammals won’t be hard to miss as they match about the width of a basketball court.

December through April, you are guaranteed a memorable and successful experience while whale watching within San Diego’s thriving marine world. During this time of year, a 4 hour cruise aboard the Yacht America will ensure marvelous whale and other aquatic life sightings worth a lifetime. Some other mammals viewed in the area include minke Whales, humpback whales, fin whales, orcas, Risso’s dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, and Pacific white sided dolphin.

Excellent whale sightings continue through the summer months during the blue whale migration. Known to be the largest creatures on Earth and the most endangered among great whales, blue whales are most likely to be spotted mid-June through September. Over the past few years, variations in ocean temperatures and copious amounts of krill have attracted even more blue whales to San Diego’s coast. These mammals like deep water, which is easily accessible from San Diego. The depth drops from 400 ft to 4,000 ft just a few miles offshore. During the summer months, about 2,000 to 3,000 whales feed off the California coast having traveled from Antartica, to California to eventually Costa Rica. Besides these gentle giants, other marine life present in the San Diego waters at this time of year include humpback whales, fin whales, pilot whales and killer whales.   

During whale watching season in San Diego, there are endless ways to see the annual migration without having to go far at all. Whales and other species are easiest to see from shore between mid-February through April during the gray whale northbound migration with the animals swimming closer to the shore to protect their newborn. Other times of the year, the whales are rarely visible from the shoreline even with binoculars in hand. 

Where To Look

Between December and April, gray whales travel from north to south as they head toward mainland Mexico. The key to getting the most out of your San Diego whale watching experience is knowing where to look. You’ll want to start your observations in the west, keeping your eyes on the ocean and San Diego Bay.  

When the whales are actively moving, they swim at speeds around 5 MPH. While some may pass closer to the shores, most of them tend to swim out farther — closer to the horizon, around three-fourths of a mile from the kelp beds. 

To get a better understanding of what to expect while out on the water with Next Level Sailing, check out our more granular monthly whale sighting report below: 

January: Gray whale migration facts: January in San Diego is one of the best times to spot gray whales as they are typically mid-migration from Alaska to Baja, California. In addition, it’s normal to also spot humpback whales and dolphins.

February: February is, without a doubt, the best time to go whale watching since it’s right in the middle of the gray whale migration. Gray whale fun facts: You can spot them by their double blow horns, which look like a heart! 

March: Gray whales are still the predominant whale to be spotted during this time. Facts about gray whales is, other than their blow horns, another distinguishing factor is their dark gray bodies are covered in white patches, which are scars left from parasites. They also can carry up to 400 lbs of barnacles. 

April: Although the gray whale migration typically teeters off at the end of March, a few gray whales can still be spotted – sometimes even with their babies! Where do gray whales give birth? In three locations: Guerrero Negro, Ojo de Liebre and Laguna San Ignacio, which are all located in Baja! These lagoons are sheltered by strong winds and are typically more shallow, which is perfect for gray whales to give birth.

May: May is an exciting month for whale watching in San Diego as it’s the beginning of blue whale season! You can easily spot them due to them being the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth! They also have very long bodies with blue-gray colored skin.

June: Blue whales are predominately spotted during this time as it is still peak season for them! 

July: In addition to blue whales, you can also spot fin whales and humpback whales in July! Fin whales can be distinguished by their size as they are the second largest species on Earth. Humpback whales are often set apart from others due to their long pectoral fins and knobby heads.

August: August is usually the last time you can spot the largest species on Earth, the blue whale! They only swim out in the deep sea, which Next Level Sailing specializes in, so you are in good hands!

September: September is known for seeing more fin whales and humpback whales. It’s possible to see a blue whale, but not likely.

October: Whale watching in San Diego in October is the time to see humpback whales as they start to migrate south. You can also expect to see large pods of dolphins. 

November: November is peak season for humpback whale migration! During this time, it’s even possible to spot killer whales.

December: December is the start of the greatest whale watching months in San Diego as the gray whales begin their migration from Alaska to Baja, California.

What To Look For 

Before your Next Level Sailing adventure, check out our whale watching report. While conditions can change at any time, you’ll get a good idea of what others have seen while onboard one of our vessels. But how do you know when you’re actually seeing a whale? There are a few visual telltale signs that you may want to watch out for. 

Knuckled Back and Footprint 

Many whale species have knuckled ridges along their spines, which can be visible as their backs rise out of the water. You’ll also notice that their backs have a shiny surface and are usually either black or gray. Like human beings, whales also leave a footprint. You’ll see a smooth, elongated oval patch of calm water where the whale has been, just after it submerges into the water.  

Blow or Spout

Whales and humans share another thing in common: They both need to breathe air. But whales have a special way of doing it. Each of these animals has a blowhole, which is located on top of the head. Blowholes are like our own nostrils, allowing whales to surface and take a breath as needed.  

Whales exhale warm air just like we do — and when it meets the cool air above the water, it creates a white tuft known as a blow or spout. Each spout lasts about five seconds, with the whale blowing three to five times in a row before submerging. You may observe a 30- to 50-second pause between each spout. 

Tail With Flukes 

Each whale has a tail, just like other cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoises. The tail is split into two portions called flukes. When it breaks the water’s surface, you may see it high in the air just before the whale dives back under. Thanks to the tail’s weight, it helps the whale dive deeper.  

Breach and Splash 

Whales can gently break the surface, but they occasionally leap out of the water and dive back in. The force of the whale going back underwater creates an enormous splash. This action is called breaching. It’s common to see multiple whales doing this at the same time, especially after one in the pod has started breaching.

Next Level Sailing makes whale watching a simple yet spectacular adventure to be enjoyed on daily outings right on board our 141-foot sailing yacht, the Yacht America. Our trips are reasonably timed with high expectations that tourists will be pleased with splendid whale sightings during peak whale watching season.