There are many places where whales, dolphins, whale sharks, stingrays etc. can be seen by a guided boat tour, a snorkel trip or even from the costal line.
This is our complete San Diego whale watching guide with tips for each season and month. San Diego one of the best locations on the West Coast of the U.S. for whale watching, as 70 miles of coastline in this area is directly in their migration path. Migrating whales can be found off shore year-round and, depending on the season, different types of whales are more prominent than others. Get up close and personal with these incredible creatures with a cruise that specializes in whale watching and knows where to go for the best chances of connecting with the whales.
Whale Watching Season | Overview
The whale watching season in San Diego is split into two parts: You can spot gray whales in winter and spring. Usually from mid-December until late April. Blue whale sightings are possible in the summer from May to August. You can see Humpback whales, fin whales, and minke whales year-round.
The best time for whale watching in San Diego is in the morning. The sea is usually calmer compared to other times of the day. Also, perfect sea and weather conditions make it easier to spot whales from a greater distance. The season doesn’t matter so much, as whales can be spotted here at any time of the year.
Disclaimer: Although San Diego is one of the best areas for whale watching activities, we and the tour operators cannot guarantee stunnning whale sightings at certain times. Wildlife on our planet is not 100% predictable. However, tour operators usually offer a free voucher for another tour in the seldom case no sightings happened.
Recommended Whale Watching Tour | Pre-Book
The image above takes you to our preferred tour! While almost every whale watching tour operator is great in San Diego, we prefer the Hornblower Tours for three reasons:
- They have the largest boat which makes it less likely to get seasick
- They probably have the most experienced captain
- Their staff is extremely professional, knowledgable and very friendly
Reserve a spot here: San Diego Whale and Dolphin Watching Cruises by Hornblower (via GetYourGuide with excellent service). Important: Pre-booking is highly recommended(!), as tours sell out quickly and you run the risk of not getting a spot. Read more details about the Hornblower Tour and other tour tips in our Whale Watching Tour Tips section below.
Monthly Reports | San Diego Whale Sightings and Weather
In January, you can spot gray whales, humpback whales, dolphins, and other whales. Weather: 66°F (average high) and 6 rainy days. Typical sightings: ‘A pair of gray whales popped up. They were surfacing for breathes and then went for deep dives. Fascinating! We also saw a pod of about 50 Risso Dolphins and over 200 common dolphins acting playful’
In February, you’ll most likely see gray whales and dolphins on a tour, maybe Humpback and others as well. Weather: 66°F (average high) and 7 rainy days. Typical sightings: ‘On the morning tour we encountered a total of 4 southbound gray whales, as well as a few Pacific White-Sided Dolphins and at least 20 common dolphins around our boat’
In March, gray whales are still migrating along the coast. Humpback whales, dolphins and other types of whales are possible. Weather: 67°F (average high) and 7 rainy days. Typical sightings: ‘We saw three northbound gray whales, two adults, and a calf. Throughout the day we encountered a total of 14 gray whales, at least 10 of them in close proximity to the boat. Unforgettable!’
In April, you usually have the last chance to see a gray whale on its migration. You may even spot a baby gray whale with its mother. Additionally, dolphins and perhaps Humpbacks or fin whales are possible, sometimes even a blue whale already (but, that’s kind of rare in April). Weather: 68°F (average high) and 4 rainy days. Typical sightings: ‘We spotted one northbound gray whale on its migration. It surfaced quite often. What a sight! On the way back we were accompanied by a pod of 100+ dolphins.’
In May, the blue whale season usually officially begins with many of them circling not too far from the San Diego coast. The largest creature ever existed on our planet! Weather: 70°F (average high) and 3 rainy days. Sighting Example: ‘On our morning trip we encountered a total of three blue whales and one fin whale, as well as a megapod of common dolphins. One of the blue whales seemed comfortable close to our boat which provided excellent looks and resulted in a great experience!’
June is another month with great opportunities for blue whale sightings, as it’s still their peak season. Weather: 72°F (average high) and 1 rainy day. Typical sighting: ‘We encountered one blue whale not too far from us. This one spent quite a while at the surface for excellent photo opportunities. And again, a pod of at least 50+ playful dolphins. A great trip!’
In July, you can not only see blue whales, it’s possible to spot fin whales and humpbacks in San Diego water. Weather: 75°F (average high) and 1 rainy day. Sighting report: ‘We came across three different whales: One humpback, one blue whale, and one Bryde’s whale! All three were amazing, but the highlight was the blue whale. It was so close and then even swam underneath our boat for 3(!) times. What an exciting close-up encounter!’
August is the last month where you have a good chance to spot the incredible blue whales Other whale sightings are possible as well. Weather: 79°F (average high) and 1 rainy day. A sightings report from a day in August: ‘No signs of a blue whale today. However, we saw a minke whale and a humpback. The minke whale was really close to our boat and was even swimming belly-up! What an amazing experience to watch! We also saw two big pods of playful dolphins.’
In September, you might still see blue whales, but it’s not very likely to spot them on one single tour at this time of the year. Weather: 77°F (average high) and 1 rainy day. Sighting report from one tour: ‘Again a calm sea and great visibility on our morning tour. That’s why we could easily spot some spouts in a distance. Two humpback whales produced these. Both were later close enough to our vessel for stunning photos and an unforgettable sight. Additionally, we happened to come across a megapod of about 1000 common dolphins!’
In October, you may come across humpback whales and possibly some rare whale sightings, as well as pods of dolphins of course. Weather: 75°F (average high) and 3 rainy days. Sighting example: ‘A passenger spotted a spout in a greater distance. We identified a humpback whale which approached our boat later, providing a stunning sight! We also saw pods of dolphins and one hammerhead shark during our tour.’
November has a good chance of seeing humpback whales as they migrate south. While rare, it’s also possible to spot exotic species like killer whales. Weather: 70°F (average high) and 4 rainy days. Sightings report: ‘The weather and sea conditions, as well as the sightings, were spectacular today. We encountered a total of eight(!) humpback whales on our morning tour. We observed their mighty spouts and took some incredible photos!’
In December, you can spot gray whales again, as they leave their feeding area in Alaska waters, migrating to the south along the coast. To spot them join a tour from mid-December. Before that, it’s more likely to see a humpback whale. Weather: 66°F (average high) and 6 rainy days. Sighting report: ‘Besides pods of dolphins greeting us, we spotted two southbound gray whales on this tour right before Christmas. They didn’t get too close to our boat but we were able to take enough amazing photos!’
Winter and Spring Whale Watching
A gray whale in San Diego waters
- Season/Months: Mid-December until late April
- Whales: Gray Whale
- Recent Sighting Record: It’s not uncommon that you may see a pair of gray whales. It gets even better: Recently in a January, the passengers on one tour spotted 20(!) gray whales. That’s absolutely breathtaking!
Every winter and into spring, the magnificent gray whale (up to 20,000 of them!) migrates south from Alaska down to Baja, California. That’s about 10,000 miles. The gray whale is huge – about the width of a basketball court (50 feet) and weighing up to 40 tons. To see them in the wild is truly a treat. Their goal is to reach the warmer waters so that the females can give birth to their calves. Then, when their offspring are strong enough, they head back north to Alaska around April.
San Diego whale watching in January is when things just start to heat up in the whale-watching world. A telltale sign that the Grey Whale is close by is the spout of water you will see off in the distance. The curious ones will come right up to the boat, and your heart wells with excitement to see such a humongous and mysterious creature so close in the flesh. Other Baleen whales and Toothed whales are also common sightings. And let’s not forget the harbor seals, green sea turtles and many species of birds that may choose to say “Hi!” to you along the way.
Further, in the winter season, the whale watching in March is when things start to slow down for gray whale sightings as they start their journey back up north. But that’s not to say that things cannot be any less exciting! You just never know when you will come across one or an entire pod of them. You might even see moms with their calves in April.
Summer and Fall Whale Watching
A nearby blue whale. Stunning!
- Season/Months: May until August
- Whales: Blue Whale [Fin Whale: Peak Season, Bryde’s Whale (rare) in July/August/September]
“Look! That blue whale just surfaced right beside us, so close to the boat! WOW!!” That’s what I said to my teammate when we went on a tour in August three years ago. It was so stunning!
Each summer the blue whale migration brings hundreds of blue whales near the coast of San Diego. You can spot blue whales usually from May until August. Sometimes they can even be seen as early as April or later in September when the blue whale season ends. Theoretically, you may also spot them at any other time of the year near San Diego, but that’s not very likely.
The blue whale is even larger than the gray whale. In fact, it’s the largest animal on earth and even larger than a dinosaur! San Diego sees the largest group of 2,000 to 3,000 blue whales feeding off the coast during the summer months. They can get as long as 100 feet and spout columns of water up to 30 feet. So, you can imagine that this is a great way to spot one, even from miles away! These guys will migrate from Antarctica to California. That means pods of blue whales pass by the coast of San Diego as they travel further north. Blue whales are usually found further out to sea, whereas the gray whale tends to keep closer into the shores of California.
Year-Round Whale Watching | + Dolphins
A humpback whale near San Diego
- Whales: Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Minke Whale
- Dolphins: Common Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, Risso's Dolphins
- Recent Sighting Record: Usually it’s possible to come across one, two or even three Humpbacks on a single tour. However, a recent record for humpback whales was 7 on a tour in December 2017. Once we saw a humpback breaching at least 10 times throughout the tour!
- Recent Dolphin Sighting Record: Often you see dozens of dolphins. However, once there was megapod of about 1000 dolphins spotted on one tour!
Surfacing juvenile humpback whales are common during every season. They might even hang out in the same area of water for weeks. One of the glorious things to witness is a pod of dolphins feeding right alongside a whale or two. Humpbacks tend to move around the water a bit more than others, sometimes even zig-zagging close to your boat. Their spouting and particularly their breaching behavior are truly spectacular. Regardless if they are up close near the boat or in the distance. While you can spot humpbacks throughout the year, there is often a peak in March and April for them.
Minke whales are smaller and are able to swim underneath the boat as they are checking out the tourists (that is, if they are so inclined!) They have white sides and “Minke Mittens” which are white on its flippers.
Fin whales can be seen in San Diego waters especially in the summer months. They’re incredible it is the second-largest species on our planet after the blue whale! Its color is black or dark brownish-grey. However, the underside is white.
More ocean life: On a tour, you can experience even more fascinating ocean life such as White-sided Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, and the Common Dolphin. They are usually sighted on a boat tour every season. The only dolphins that are not all-year-round are the white-sided variety, which typically show up in the winter months. They migrate down here from the Pacific Northwest waters. Dolphins are very playful and eager to interact with the tour boats. Risso’s dolphins can also be found, although they are rarer in these waters. You may also witness sea lions, several species of sharks and many different sea birds. The Mola Mola fish, a species of ocean sunfish, is also spotted in summer off the shores of San Diego.
Rare Sightings | Orca (Killer Whale), False Killer Whale, Pilot Whale, etc.
On a San Diego whale watching tour you could even see some rare species. Some of them are spotted less than 6 times a year and some every other year only.
In general, Galapagos is a world-class destination at any time of the year. For divers, the best time is from June until November, when also Whale Sharks can be spotted. For snorkelers, warmer ocean temps from January to April may suit better. The sea is calmer, but rain can occurs in the afternoon.
Climate/Weather Galapagos for Diving
- Rainy Season - Snorkel Season
December through May is the wet season. While often sunny and warm, you can expect afternoon showers. The sea is calm with a good visibility and the sea temperature is between 21°C and 26°C / 70°F and 79°F. It's the best time for snorkeling.
- Dry Season - Diving Season
The Humboldt current brings cold water to the islands from June to November. The sea is nutrient rich which attracts a huge variety of fish, therefore sharks, seabirds like the albatross, and penguins as well. It's mostly cloudy with a higher surf. During August and September, the sea is very rough. The sea temperature varies between 18°C and 24°C / 64°F until 75°CF. From September to November the Galapagos Islands are an outstanding place to enjoy marine-life. You are able to find schools of hammerhead at Darwin & Wolf Island. Hammerhead sharks occur throughout the year at Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock). It is easy to get to Leon Dormido by guided boat tour from San Cristobal.
Check out our detailed Galapagos Guide to experience the islands underwater and also the rich biodiversity on land.
The West Indian Manatee migrates to Crystal River and the surrounding springs roughly mid-November and stays around the springs until mid-March. Guided tours are offered from November to end of March. You experience most activity during the early morning. If you like to get interactions with manatees book the early morning tour in advance! The most popular and best swimming tours are offered by River Ventures USA: Crystal River Florida - 3 Hour Swim with Manatees (safe and reliable booking via GetYourGuide, with excellent service). Book in advance (see below)! Even if you don't plan to swim with manatees, visiting the area to spot these amazing creatures is amazing.
The manatees come here during winter time because they get stressed by the cold gulf if the temp goes below 68°F / 20°C. Although they look like to be prepared for cold temperatures. Their bodies have not much fat for insulation. The springs have a constant temp of 74°F / 23°C. The reason that they gather around the springs. During high tide, they move to the Three Sisters Springs, and at low tide, they gather outside in the channel at Idiot’s Delight I and II. Often hundreds of manatees can be seen at the springs at once.
Florida Manatee Calendar (Summer - Winter)
While manatees can be found in large numbers from mid-November until mid-March, exceptions are possible. In 2018 for example they already left the springs mid-February due to an unusual high day temperature. On the other hand, in one year they stayed until April, even early May. But still, you should stick to most likely months:
Mid-November | December | January | February | March
This is the time to spot Manatees and swim with them. The population in Crystal River goes up to 600-800 manatees. That's why so many visitors are coming in the winter months. Be prepared for competing with the best tour spots with hundreds of others. That's why it's critical to book in advance: Crystal River Tours - Florida (via GetYourGuide, safe booking and extremely reliable). You can also find the famous Manatee Swimming Tours by River Ventures via this link (or use the link at the top of this article) Tip: Book in advance!
April | May | June | July | August | September | October
These are the unpleasant and unlikely months. From spring (April and May) throughout summer (June, July, August) until the fall (September, October), you won't see large numbers of Manates in Florida, as they migrated to the ocean. That's why the manatee population ranges between 60-90 only in the Crystal River area outside of the winter months. That also means, there are still some manatee residents, and there is a chance that you might spot one or two. It's still a nice overall experience as it's much quieter of course with very few other visitiors.
Best Time of Day
It is almost impossible to avoid crowds while swimming with the manatees. Even in the early morning expect 30 to 40 people in the water. The Three Sisters Springs, however, are tranquil when they open the gate early in the morning and the manatees are most active during that time of day. That means, early morning bookings are necessary for the best experience, regardless of other visitors. Just want to spot the manatees without swimming? Also get there early in the morning, as this is the time when the manatees are active.
During the peak season of the manatees, it can be pretty chilly in the morning. On average it's roughly 50°F / 10°C cold in the early morning. We experienced 28°F / -2°C which happens rarely. It was pretty cold when we got out of the water. Day temps are usually between 58°F / 15°C and 70°F / 21°C. Precipitation occurs year-round with its peak in the summer months. It’s quite hot and muggy in the summer and temps are around 90°F / 32°C.
How Long to Stay
Regardless if you plan to swim with manatees or just want to spot them, we highly recommend staying here for a couple of days. Visit the Three Sisters Spring, have a look to one of the many other springs like the Rainbow Springs and enjoy the manatee encounter. Actually, we planned camping in the Rainbow Springs State Park. Due to the cold night temps of 32°F, we booked a room at the Hampton Inn Crystal River instead last minute. It was just a 5 minutes drive to our manatee tour the next morning. We loved the great breakfast each day. More alternatives can be found here: Hotels in Crystal River - via booking.com with price guarantee
The park opens throughout the year at 8 a.m. but closes before sunset to protect the wildlife and to avoid disturbance (like deer, foxes, bobcats, and owls). Camping is not permitted. Clearer skies, warmest average temps and the best moths without fog are September and October followed by April and May during the harbor seal pupping season.
Crowds in Summer
This magnificent and popular State Reserve is located close to Carmel on HW 1. Point Lobos is a year-round destination and super busy during summer and especially at weekends. Limited parking within the reserve; 150 cars only. At weekends and especially Sundays during summer it’s advisable to arrive before 9 a.m. or later in the afternoon. Otherwise, you have to line up or park your car outside on the shoulder and walk in.
If possible visit the reserve mid-week. However, Point Lobos is also much loved by school classes due to the many opportunities to experience and learn about nature and wildlife. The foundation supports schools with transportation and offers adventure programmes for 8 to 12 years old youth in summer which fills up soon.
It’s a moderate cool coastal climate. The average temperature ranges from about 55 to 65°F / 13-18 °C year-round. Spring is sunny and cool before the foggy summer season starts with fog until the afternoon. Fog banks emerge from the cold water (around 50 °F / 10°C) and the warm coastal air to condense into fog. Fall (September to November) is the sunniest time of the year although evenings are more chilly. During the winter mist and showers occur between November to March.
- Harbor Seal Pupping Season
From March until June you may spot harbor seals giving birth to a puppy at China Cove. It’s amazing that the new-borns start to swim just 20 minutes later. The best months to witness this spectacle are April and May.
- Southern Sea Otters
They may be spotted offshore in the kelp beds during calm days. On windy days they are more often found in protected coves. They are living in waters with a temp between 35°F and 60°F / 1,5°C up to 15,5°C. This is important for their constant body temp of almost 100 °F / 37°C. They mate and give birth in the sea throughout the year with a peak of pupping from January to March, fewer from August to October.
- They can be spotted throughout the year. Perfect spots to observe whales are South Point and Sea Lion Point.
Grey whales are most commonly seen from late December to January and again from March until early May.
Humpbacks are frequently seen from March until December.
- Minke whales are sometimes spotted from January until April. They migrate in larger numbers but due to their smaller seize often missed.
- Blue whales are sometimes spotted in summer.
- Orcas; three different species of orcas can be found. The transient orcas feed on mammals, therefore, frequently seen when gray whales migrate with their calves their preferred prey. They can also be spotted at other times of the year hunting seals, porpoise, and dolphins. The resident orcas feed on fish especially salmon and always stay in the same area. Nowadays resident orcas from Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca can be found around Monterey. The offshore orcas are mostly seen during winter feeding on squid, fish and even sharks.
- Sea Lions
The sea lion population is much smaller in late spring and summer due to migration to the south for mating.
Spring and summer is the nesting season. The bird island trail is great to spot lots of birds in the morning or late afternoon. Two cormorant species can be found year-round; nesting on rocks offshore from March to August. We spotted several birds like the scrub jay and dark-eyed junco.
The wildflower season in spring; California Poppies, Douglas Iris, lilac Ceanothus and many more
A permit is required, and reservations can be made up two months in advance. 15 diving teams always two divers are allowed to dive at Whalers Cove and Bluefish Cove each day. Some caves are accessible in calm seas. Diving map of Point Lobos State Reserve
Where to Stay (bookmark the links)
Unfortunately, there isn't any campground or accommodation offered inside the reserve. The best-located hotel is the Hyatt Carmel Highlands with spectacular views. Nearby is the popular town of Carmel with a vast variety of hotels and lodges. An alternative and half an hour drive is Salinas. We'd chosen the Super 8 Salinas where breakfast is included.
The Orcas usually approach the bay to rub against the pebbled beach in shallow water close to the shoreline, in as little as 1.8 m (6 feet) of water. It can be very close to the beach during high tide. The sea should be smooth and avoid windy days. The chance to spot them increase if you overnight at the campground at Bere Point Regional Park and select an ocean view site. The campground is serviced during summer only.
In the evening we spotted Humpback Whales and in the morning we heard Orcas rubbing on the pebbles.
Weather and Season Details
The precipitation of Vancouver Island's east coast is just 700-800 mm per year. In contrast, the west coast of the island is exposed to moisture-packed winds blowing from the Pacific Ocean and receives plenty of precipitation from October to March. Summers are in general relatively dry.
Spring is always a great time to visit Vancouver Island. Daily temperatures range from 11-15 ºC. It's a great time for wildlife viewing. The Pacify grey whales are on their route to Alaska, Grizzly and black bears finish their hibernation a looking for food along the shoreline.
From June through September, Vancouver Island is typically sunny and mild, although the temperature at Malcolm Island seldom goes beyond 15-17°C but can reach up to 25°C.
In fall you may see a lot of fog, especially in the morning, which could last until mid-day or afternoon. The temperature is on average, around 12°C.
Vancouver Island enjoys a moderate and mild winter in most regions. This allows outdoor activities such as fishing and hiking in the south-coastal areas, even in January.
The best months to visit Hong Kong are October to April. The northern summer is the time of the monsoon. Keep in mind that HK is very busy during the Western and Chinese holiday periods and at weekends as well. The dolphin watching tours take part three times each week always on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. The trip has to be booked in advance. Continue reading for more details and where you can get a pickup.
The driest months are December to March. These are also the coldest months, therefore, more often sunny blue skies instead of clouds and high humidity. Avoid the summer months when you may experience downpours, and in September typhoons occur occasionally.