Whale Watching Cruises in San Diego: A Guide

We recently wrote an article about whale watching cruises in California in which we described the general landscape of whale watching in the state. While most of the larger, coastal towns in California have at least a couple of whale watching cruise companies, we noticed that San Diego had a particularly lively scene, partly because it is the second largest city in the state and partly because it is especially well situated for observing certain types of whales. There are numerous whale watching cruises out of San Diego every single day (at least during certain parts of the year), so it can be difficult to make sense of the wealth of options at your disposal. To help steer you toward the right sailing, we have compiled the following guide to whale watching cruises in San Diego.

Before detailing the companies through which you can book San Diego whale watching cruises, we should note that there are a number of common features between all of the sailings out of the city. To begin, the companies all offer cruises of comparable lengths, ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 hours, so at most you’ll be out for a morning or an afternoon. Most of the companies also offer multiple sailings a day, generally a morning cruise and an afternoon cruise, but occasionally a company offers more. Moreover, you can expect to see the same kinds of whales regardless of what company you book with, as all of the ships are sailing more or less in the same waters. During certain parts of the season, like during the grey whale migration that takes places from December to April, grey whales will be spotted. During other parts of the season, like most of the summer, blues whales will be on display as they feed off the San Diego coastline. You might also see humpback, finback, and minke whales, and on occasion killer whales are spotted. Although the focus of the trip is whales, you’ll also encounter other wildlife – like dolphins, sea lions, sharks, and various kinds of seabirds, for instance. Obviously not every cruise is identical and you like might have better luck with certain companies, but they are all offering fundamentally similar experiences that focus on the same animals.

Although we won’t claim to have unearthed every whale watching company in the San Diego area, three companies seem to hold the most prominent places in the industry. There is Hornblower and Flagship, which are both large cruise and event companies that offer much more than whale watching cruises. Hornblower operates around the country and Flagship is based in San Diego. The other main company that offers whale watching cruises out of the city is San Diego Whale Watch, which, as is implied by its highly fitting name, is exclusively focused on whale watching in San Diego. It is, in fact, the only company that offers these cruises all year. In addition, there is H&M Landing, although their position in the industry is slightly harder to place because it is primarily a sportfishing company, but they nevertheless offer tons of whale watching cruises, so we’re inclined to consider it a major San Diego whale watching company as well.

Below these three (or four) big companies are a few smaller outfits, such as Jada Charters and the Maritime Museum of San Diego, which runs a whale watching cruise on the side. We don’t want to imply that these cruises are in any sense lesser than the ones offered by what we have labeled the main players in the industry, but these companies seem to operate less robust whale watching operations. The Maritime Museum’s cruises are obviously tangential to the larger mission of the museum and aren’t offered every day, and Jada only offers one cruise per week from January through March (provided a private charter hasn’t been scheduled on one of these days). In addition to these companies, there are several companies that operate “San Diego whale watching cruises” that aren’t actually based in San Diego, but somewhere nearby (or kind of nearby). For instance, there are two companies that sail from Newport Beach, Newport Landing and Davey’s Locker, that offer “whale watching for San Diego visitors.” (Interestingly, both companies use this precise language.) If you are staying in San Diego, these aren’t realistic companies to use, but if you are further north, they might be just as easy to work with as the companies based in San Diego.

As you can see, there are lots of whale watching cruises in San Diego. Multiple companies operate out of or near the city, giving you plenty of possibilities to consider. The range of options may seem slightly overwhelming, but keep in mind that all of these cruises will be fairly similar. You aren’t going to miss something by taking one cruise instead of another unless what you miss is the result of luck (or lack of luck). We recommend looking through the sites we’ve linked to above to get a sense of what is available. You should go with the company whose port of departure is easy to get to and offers the best price for the amount of time you spend on the water. Not surprisingly, prices tend to be comparable – they are in the 30-40 dollar range – but occasionally a company will offer a promotion, and that might tip the scales in their favor. For more general information, check out our overview of whale watching cruises.

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