🐋 The 5 Best San Diego Whale Watching Tours [2023 Reviews]

No need to practice your whale calls, because these tour companies have proven to be experts in spotting the gentle giants.

San Diego is full of fun and adventure, but if you don’t try a whale watching tour, you’re missing out big time! Each excursion offers something a little bit different, from those who want to feel like they’re in a Discovery Channel show to those who just want to try something new.

There’s something for everyone, regardless of background and interests. We’ve done the hard part for you, bringing you the top San Diego whale watching tours available. That’s jump right in! If you looking to take a dinner cruise in San Diego harbor, see our dinner cruise recommendations.

Best Whale Watching Cruises in San Diego

San Diego Whale Watching CruisePrivate Family Whale & Dolphin Adventure in San DiegoSan Diego Whale Watching Tour

Best Adventure Tour

Best Private Tour

Best Budget Tour

editors choice
Departure:2050 Shelter Island Dr, San Diego1441 Quivira Rd, San Diego1617 Quivira Rd, San Diego
Start:Between 9:00 AM & 2:00 PM9:30 PM, 11:30 AM, 1:30PM9:00 AM, 12:00 PM
Duration:4 hours3 hours2 to 3 hours
Includes:Sodas and snacks, whale sighting guarantee: if you don't see a whale, you get to come back for freePrivate tour, enclosed cabin, commentary on the local wildlife, bottled water, safety equipmentMarine biologists on board

Tour Information & Booking

Tour Information & Booking

Tour Information & Booking

Quick Answer: The 5 Best Rated San Diego Whale Watching Tours For 2023

  1. San Diego Whale Watching Sailing Cruise
  2. Private Family Whale & Dolphin Adventure in San Diego
  3. San Diego Whale Watching Tour
  4. Dolphin & Whale Watching Sunset Cruise
  5. San Diego Whale Watching Cruise

San Diego Whale Watching Tour Reviews

1. San Diego Whale Watching Sailing Cruise

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 4 hours
  • Departure: 2050 Shelter Island Dr, San Diego
  • Departure Time: Between 9:00 AM & 2:00 PM
  • Includes: Sodas and snacks, whale sighting guarantee: if you don’t see a whale, you get to come back for free, no seasickness’ guarantee, free parking

If you have a few extra bucks and some spare time, why not take you and your crew out on the water for some finback spotting? The San Diego Whale Watching Cruise is one of the lengthier ones, lasting 4 hours. Oh, and it takes place on undoubtedly one of the coolest vessels in the city!

That’s right – for those history buffs out there, you’re going to love whale watching from a replica of a historic sailing schooner from 1851!

As you may already know, San Diego is a big US Navy city, so it’d be a shame not to incorporate that in the experience! Your expert guide shows all kinds of US Navy sites along the way (Naval Air Station, Point Loma Navy Base, and more), offering interesting commentary with each site!

Don’t think they’ll leave out anything regarding sea life, either. Your head is going to be packed with so much information about gray whales, dolphins, and other marine critters! The classic sailing vessel is a super smooth ride, so feel free to enjoy the complimentary snacks and bevs on board as you cruise along!

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Whale sighting in San Diego

Whale breaching in San Diego

Whale sightings are guaranteed, and with the spacious decks, you have plenty of unobstructed viewing space! The crew’s sharp eyes will point out any in the area, so everyone gets to partake in this cool experience.

Whales, dolphins, sea lions, birds, and more – this fantastic cruise was made perfect thanks to the friendly, professional crew who made sure everyone had a wonderful time!


More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience

Other Experiences You May Enjoy:

2. Private Family Whale & Dolphin Adventure in San Diego

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Departure: 1441 Quivira Rd, San Diego
  • Departure Time: 9:30 PM, 11:30 AM, 1:30PM
  • Includes: Private tour, enclosed cabin, commentary on the local wildlife, bottled water, safety equipment

Next up, is the Private Family Whale & Dolphin Adventure in San Diego. Are you interested in learning about local wildlife and ecosystem in a VIP/exclusive tour format? Get close to the action with this in-depth, fun-filled adventure perfect for spending a morning or afternoon!

When going out on a whale or dolphin-watching tour for the first time, many people get nervous about what to expect.

You may wonder if you’re going to see any animals at all, or if you are going to get seasick. We found this tour to be top-notch, with a smooth sail the entire way and plenty of critters to observe and learn about!

There are various start times available, and as the tour lasts 3 hours, it’s easy to fit into any schedule. Before leaving the dock, your captain will give everyone a safety briefing to ensure each participant feels secure and comfortable.

Don’t hesitate to ask any questions, as they’re really friendly and knowledgeable with over 14 years of experience.

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Private whale watching tour in San Diego

Whale sighting on a San Diego whale watching cruise

As it is a private tour, it’s just the crew and your family or friends along for the ride. They’ll take you out right into the center of things, where you may just find yourself in the middle of a huge dolphin pod or family of whales!

Sea lions are also no strangers, and love making surprise appearances. The crew will teach you all about these guys, making it all the more memorable.

If you’re on the search for an activity perfect for the entire family, this tour is perfect for people of all ages!


More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience

3. San Diego Whale Watching Tour

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 2 to 3 hours
  • Departure: 1617 Quivira Rd, San Diego
  • Departure Time: 9:00 AM, 12:00 PM
  • Includes: Marine biologists on board

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a lot of fun. In fact, this next tour is one of the most budget-friendly activities that offers the best bang for your buck!

The San Diego Whale Watching Tour will get you out to the best spots along the Pacific coast for spotting tons of whales, dolphins, and other sea creatures!

We typically think of whale-watching tours as a kind of hit-or-miss, as you can never guarantee the animals make an appearance. However, these guys really know their stuff and seem to know exactly when and where to cruise to find them.

We really appreciated that they placed focus on making sure they keep the animals safe, too. Before heading out, your captain will offer a comprehensive safety briefing to ensure everyone has a great time and is on the same page.

You’ll also have a naturalist/marine biologist on board to offer educational commentary over the sound system along the way! This is one of the coolest, most efficient ways to learn about the local wildlife and ecosystems.

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whale watching cruise in San Diego

whale tail in San Diego

With just a 10-minute journey from the bay to the open ocean, you don’t have to worry about feeling poorly, either. The bulk of tour time is really spent out there, appreciating the natural beauty San Diego is known for.

You’ll see whales, dolphins, and other marine life hanging out comfortably in their natural environments. The only thing that we felt could have been improved upon was the efficiency in the boarding process, but the fantastic experience we have after boarding really made that nearly irrelevant.


More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience

4. Dolphin & Whale Watching Sunset Cruise

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 2 hours to 2.5 hours
  • Departure: 1617 Quivira Rd, San Diego, CA 92109, USA
  • Departure Time: 3:00 PM, 5:00 PM
  • Includes: Certified guide

San Diego is always beautiful – trust us on that one! However, if you really want to experience it in all its glory, you must be on the ocean during sunset. The Dolphin & Whale Watching Sunset Cruise offers all that and more!

Looking for a fun yet unique, romantic date night? You can’t get better than sailing along the calm Pacific coastline while the red-and-gold sunset reflects off the water. Oh, and did we mention whales and dolphins will be hanging out with you?

The crew and captain are incredibly knowledgeable, with decades of experience between them. They know all the best spots to go to make sure you see these beautiful animals while ensuring everyone’s safety.

As you enjoy the view, listen to interesting facts and personal anecdotes about the local marine life from the crew. Rather than high-speed, high-intensity tours, this ride is relaxing and designed so you really get to soak it all in.

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dolphins on a whale watching tour in San Diego

sunset cruise while whale watching

Make sure to bring a jacket and wear layers, as it can get chilly at this time. Rest assured that on the off chance you don’t see any whales or dolphins, you’ll receive a free pass to come on board and try another tour.

Sea lions seem to really enjoy being around people, and they seem to make an appearance just about every tour.

Your certified guide will educate you on all these amazing creatures who live just right there! Lasting 2 hours, you’re sure to be more entertained here than on your average dinner outing!


More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience

5. San Diego Whale Watching Cruise

Tour Highlights:

  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Departure: 990 N Harbor Dr, San Diego
  • Departure Time: 9:30 AM
  • Includes: Inside and outside seating

Here’s yet another budget-friendly tour ideal for the entire family, group outings, or just an awesome date idea. The San Diego Whale Watching Cruise is one of the most comprehensive we’ve had the pleasure of participating in. Feel that fresh sea breeze blowing through your hair, enjoy the friendly company, and the anticipation of seeing these incredible animals!

Honestly, this is one the most memorable tours out there. A lot of tours just seem to be missing something, whether that be attention to detail, customer service, or friendliness.

The captain and guides were so funny and knowledgeable, the ride was pleasant, and they even include a nice snack bar to munch while enjoying the view.

Not to mention, they offer multiple restrooms so everyone is comfortable! If you have a tendency of getting seasick, it’s a smart idea to bring medication as waves can get a bit on the big side (depending on the time of day and year).

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whale surfacing in San Diego

whale breaching on a San Diego whale watching cruise

Your cruise for the 3-hour excursion will be a 2-story yacht offering full 360 views of the Pacific. With onboard, complimentary wi-fi, you can livestream or stay connected with those on shore. Share photos and videos of these amazing animals without delay!

Aside from your captain, you’ll also have a guide on board who is an expert in grey whale migratory patterns. They know exactly where and how to search for them, teaching everyone about them along the way. If you don’t see any, you’re guaranteed a free ride again.


More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience

Tips For Your San Diego Whale Watching Tour

San Diego Whale Watching Tips

Many whales and dolphins are endangered and deserve our protection. Be sure to follow the guidelines of your tour operator and do not try to touch, feed or harass them in any way! Always keep a safe distance and avoid making loud noises that might disturb them. Remember that you are a guest in their environment!

While whales are pretty large, they’re definitely not slow! GoPros can be perfect for tours like this, as you can set them to record the entire time so you don’t miss even a second! If using your phone, we highly recommend setting it to video mode so you see them breaching or even a fin making an appearance.

Many whales have down-times of close to 10 minutes, so if you don’t immediately see them, don’t feel discouraged. If you do see a whale and it disappears, make note of which direction it was swimming when you saw it and follow your line of sight in that direction.

You can use the best frames from the videos if you’re more of a photo lover. Be sure to take some time away from the lens though and just enjoy the moment. Studies say that you actually remember things more clearly when you aren’t taking photos or videos of whatever you’re doing!

FAQs About Whale Watching Tours in San Diego

What should I wear?

Even if you feel like it’s hot in the city or even on the beach, it’s not the same once you get out on the water. The open-air ocean can get really windy and chilly.

However, you don’t want to go full-on parka mode. We recommend wearing layers so you can add or subtract as you go. It’s always a good idea to have waterproof outer layers as there is always the chance of getting splashed by a wave.

Does it matter where I am on the boat?

A: Choose a viewing site and stay there. Moving around usually doesn’t increase your odds of spotting a whale. When it doubt, however, the captain and crew will help point out them out to you. Onboard naturalists are a great resource to have, as they’re experts in the nature and habits of whales and are great at spotting them.

When should I go?

There are a variety of species of whales that call San Diego their home at different times of the year. They all have different migration patterns and feeding habits. Gray whales are probably the most common visitors to San Diego. They pass through San Diego from mid-December to April as they travel between Alaska and Mexico.

Blue whales which are the largest animals on earth can be seen from mid-June to September. About the same time fin whales, minke whales and humpback whales are in the area. You will also see dolphins year-round, including common, bottlenose, Pacific white-sided and Risso’s dolphins.

How do I chose the right tour for me?

There are many options for whale watching tours in San Diego, ranging from large vessels with indoor seating and restrooms to small inflatable boats that get you closer to the water. We highlight our favorite options above. We are partial to the San Diego Whale Watching Sailing Cruise.

Whale watching tours have naturalists on board who will provide lots of information and commentary about the whales and dolphins you will see. A private charter or a sailing yacht will give you a more personalized experience, however they can be expensive!

Will I see anything other than whales?

Obviously whales are the main attraction will also likely see dolphins, as well as other marine life like sea lions, seals, pelicans and more. The tour operators are experts on finding the best views of whales feeding, socializing, and playing. Most tour operators have whale sighting guarantees that allow you to go again for free if whales are not spotted.

What is the cheapest San Diego whale watching tour?

To get a inexpensive price for a whale watching tour you will need to go on a bigger boat with more people. You will unfortunately get a less personal experience. We recommend the San Diego Whale Watching Tour.

What is the best San Diego whale watching tour?

If you can afford to spend more money, you can go on a smaller boat and get a much more personal experience with a whale expert. We recommend the Private Family Whale & Dolphin Adventure in San Diego that has a whale expert on board the tour so you can learn all about the whales.

Tips on Photographing Whales

  • Use the right equipment: When photographing whales, you are going to need a powerful zoom lens that will cover a wide range of focal lengths, from wide-angle to telephoto. A lens that is longer than 400 mm will be difficult to use on a boat due to the rocking, so use something like a 70-200 mm or a 100-400 mm lens. You need a camera that can shoot fast and accurately that has a high burst rate and autofocus. A DSLR or a mirrorless camera with a sports mode or a shutter priority mode is your best bet. Don’t forget to bring extra batteries and a waterproof bag to protect your gear.
  • Adjust your shutter speed: Whales are faster than you think! You need a fast shutter speed to freeze their motion and avoid blurry shots. A least 1/500 of a second or faster will do, depending on the light and how fast the whale is moving. You can also increase your ISO or open up your aperture to get more light and faster shutter speeds. Just be careful to not overexpose your pictures.
  • Use the right exposure: Since whales are surrounded by water and possibly a sunny sky, this can fool your camera’s metering system and result in underexposed shots. To avoid this, you can use exposure compensation or use a manual exposure and adjust your settings according to the scene. A good tip is to use spot metering or center-weighted metering and aim for the whale’s body or head.
  • Use continuous shooting mode: Whales will appear and disappear in just a matter of seconds, so you have to be ready at a moments notice! By using continuous shooting mode, you can take many shots in a row to increase your odds of getting the perfect shot. You can also use continuous autofocus mode or Al Servo mode to track the whale’s and keep it in focus. Try to anticipate the whale’s behavior, your guide will help you out here.
  • Use a scale: Whales are quite massive, but they may look small in your photos if you don’t have something for scale. To help show their true size, try to include something of scale in your shot composition. Try and incorporate other boats, birds, mountains, or even the city skyline. You can also get closer to the water level and shoot from a low angle to make the whale look more imposing.
  • Consider the weather:  Obviously the weather will have an impact on your whale photography. It can change the color and contrast of your pictures. Ideally you want to shoot in bright sunlight to bring out the details and texture of the whale’s skin. Just because it’s cloudy or even foggy you can still get some amazing shots with soft light and muted tones. Just make sure you adjust your white balance and exposure accordingly.
  • Learn their behavior: By learning how they breathe and dive you can predict their movements and anticipate their actions. As an example if you see a whale arching its back or lifting its tail flukes, it means it’s about to dive. If you see the whales slapping its fins or tail on the surface, it’s feeding or playing. By paying attention to these signs it will help you capture the perfect photo!
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The San Diego Whale Watching Sailing Cruise is our Editors Choice for the best whale watching tour in San Diego

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Robert Baker

Robert is a content writer and editor at World Guides to Travel where he shares his love for the great outdoors. He also writes in-depth travel blogs for other websites around the world. Robert is passionate about the environment and uses his writing to educate people about the advantages and importance of sustainable living. Robert enjoys creative writing. In 2009, his children’s novel Sally Hemings & the Good Associates won the Children’s Fiction section of the You Write On Book of the Year Award.
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