Note: Some tour providers on this list may have limited operations due to COVID-19. Check with your tour operator about availability before you book.
Though it’s home to an assortment of sea lions, dolphins and birds, San Diego‘s most popular animals are whales. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the city boasts unrivaled opportunities for observing these gentle giants. After consulting both traveler opinion and expert input, U.S. News identified the following five tours as the best available for whale watching. These outings feature professional crews that offer insights about the fauna encountered during these watery expeditions.
Adventure R.I.B. Rides – Whale Watching San Diego
This ride on a military-style rigid inflatable boat (RIB) features sightings of whales (and dolphins), plus views of the city’s skyline, a submarine base and Point Loma Lighthouse. The excursions occur year-round, though the roster of whale species changes with the seasons. Humpback and fin whales as well as common and bottlenose dolphins are in the area all year. Meanwhile, blue and minke whales appear from May through December, and gray whales tend to show up from December through April. Trip-takers find the captains to be friendly and adept guides. Tours typically last 2 ½ to three hours and take place three times daily, with departures at 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tickets start at $98 per person. Groups are limited to 10 people, all of whom must be at least 4 years old. Private tours are also available.
Flagship Cruises & Events – Whale Watching Tour
This tour aims to be equal parts educational and fun, and reviewers consistently report that it succeeds in both respects, with the crew winning praise for being knowledgeable and personable. Flagship Cruises & Events offers this three-hour tour from mid-December to mid-April – peak season for observing gray, fin and humpback whales as they migrate along the coast – with departures at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily. Tickets start at $45 for adults on weekdays and $50 on weekends, with half-priced tickets for children 4 to 12. (Accompanied children younger than 4 can ride for free.) If you don’t see whales on your tour, Flagship guarantees you free passage on a subsequent outing. In addition to its whale-focused tour, the company offers a variety of other cruises, including a ferry ride to Coronado.
Next Level Sailing – Whale Watching
The Yacht America, a 139-foot yacht used for this excursion, sails daily throughout the year, offering chances to see humpback, blue and gray whales, among others, depending on the season. Patrons consistently describe the captain and crew as capable, attentive and engaging. (The vessel itself is generally regarded as particularly attractive.) Tour-takers can opt for a morning or afternoon departure and expect the outing to last 3 ½ to four hours. Tickets start at $85 for adults and $42.50 for children (prices are slightly higher on weekends); fees include water and snacks. You’re also welcome to bring your own food on board. Next Level offers several charter options as well.
San Diego Whale Watch – Whale Watching
This 2 ½-hour tour features a certified marine biologist as a guide, ensuring that sea life enthusiasts will get the maximum amount of insight about the whales, dolphins and other creatures they’ll see. Patrons tend to appreciate the friendly crew members’ informed commentary. Tours occur all year long, with both 9 a.m. and noon departure times available. Tickets cost approximately $48 per adult, with discounts for military service members, senior citizens and anyone younger than 18. As an added bonus, if tourgoers do not spot any whales, they can take their next ride for no charge. San Diego Whale Watch also offers a sunset cruise and private charters.
Sail San Diego – Whale Watching Sail
If you seek a small-group tour with personalized attention well suited for couples or families, Sail San Diego might have just the outing for you. Whale watching sails have just six people per outing and travel into the bay or open water. Reviewers frequently describe the captains – who also serve as guides – as hospitable, helpful, entertaining and accommodating. The 3 ½-hour cruises happen twice daily at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets start at $89 per person; fees include parking at the marina, light snacks and beverages. Sail San Diego also operates a sunset sail and private tours.