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Whale watching in San Diego

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"It's on my bucket list". This was how the woman waiting in line to board the Horatio Hornblower ship replied when asked if she had ever been whale watching before. Many people put whale watching somewhere of their "to do someday"list. What many people do not realize is that whale watching need not be part of an epic journey to Alaska. In fact whales are seen daily off the California coast, and whale watching excursions can start from $15 on a weekday, depending on the boat size and port.

The migration of the Gray whale is the primary reason people believe that there is a 'season' for whale watching on the west coast, but whales are often seen off the west coast from San Diego to Alaska. Whale watching excursions usually have a whale guarantee, so take a chance the next time you find yourself on either coast.

Here's a small sampling of what the woman who had whale watching on her bucket list and 30 others saw on their late March whale watching excursion during the height of the Gray Whale migratory season.

Point Loma Lighthouse
Point Loma Lighthouse Liane Ehrich

Point Loma Lighthouse

As your whale watching vessel cruises out of San Diego Bay, you will pass by the Point Loma Lighthouse. This spit of land is the southernmost point in the western US.

After this point you will be in the open ocean. If you get sea sick look for larger ships that are wide or are catamaran style. Some even have a no-sick guarantee.

Smaller ships and boats will be more maneuverable and get you closer to wildlife (there is a minimum legal distance that any ship can come to sea mammals). While larger ships offer better stability and more amenities.


Whales Liane Ehrich


Of course, the whole point of your trip is to see whales. In this case a mother daughter pair of humpback whales.

When picking your ship try to find one that has experts on board. Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the San Diego Museum of Natural History often provide docents for whale watching excursions. They are able to provide background, identification and behavioral information to help you understand what you are seeing.

The longer the cruise, the more likely you are to have multiple encounters with wildlife.

Flukes Liane Ehrich


Whales live in the sea and we on land. So unless you are a scuba diver you must be content with parts of whales and a lot of sprinting from one side (of a bigger vessel) to the other waiting for the whales to rise again.

In this case the humpback had a calf and thus was unable to spend a great deal of time underwater. This also meant that she was unlikely to do the aerial acrobatics that these whales are known for.

Often these creatures are as intrigued by us as we are by them. This results in their willingness to hang out with the boat for a while. In this case, the boat spent well over an hour with these two.

Dolphins Liane Ehrich


There are a half dozen species of dolphins that call the California seacoast their home. They often travel in pods or groups and are identifiable by white splashes on the water.

They can often be playful with ships, playing in the slipstream and leaping along the bow. This pod was serious about hunting but were quite visible for 10-15 minutes.

Sea Lions
Sea Lions Liane Ehrich

Sea Lions

Sea Lions and other pinnipeds make California their home for mush of the year. They are often seen lounging on off shore rocks, or even onshore.

These three were quite content to sun themselves on this buoy.

You are more likely to see whales and dolphins outside of the bay and pinnipeds inside the bay.

Osprey Liane Ehrich


Birds are always with the boats, usually sea gulls mooching leftovers. Occasionally cormorants would glide low over the open sea. And pelicans were occasional visitors, though, unlike the ever present seagulls, they had other matters to attend to.

Closer to land this osprey was hunting fish along the shore line. Blue herons stalked the shallows, while ducks and their close kin floated in the protected waters.


Military Installations
Military Installations Liane Ehrich

Military Installations

Two aircraft carriers call San Diego Bay home, along with thousands of aircraft and a harbor for nuclear submarines.

The Midway, a gunboat turned aircraft carrier during the run up to WWII is open for tours and sits on the Embarcadero. For $20 you can tour this massive ship.

From your whale watching vessel you will see the other aircraft carriers (if they are in port) and their refueling vessels. You can also see a dry dock for military submarines, along with this collection of jets with their wings folded up.

You will only see aircraft on the carriers out to see, as it is considered unsafe to have the on board while in dock.

The San Diego Skyline
The San Diego Skyline Liane Ehrich

The San Diego Skyline

A cruise ships sits in port and the city's beautiful skyline shines in the late afternoon sun. San Diego is a unique and charming city.

A whale watching cruise is a fantastic way to enjoy a sunny afternoon in Southern California. Do a little research and decided which kind of tour best serves your needs.

Most cruises are kid friendly, and the bigger ships will provide snacks. Bring a jacket (it's always colder than it looks), sunscreen and a hat. Also pack binoculars and a camera with the biggest zoom lens you own (all these pictures were shot with a Nikon 100x300).

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