Thar She Blows! Best Whale Watching Spots from Land or Sea

If Finding Dory is on repeat in your house, it might be time to live the life aquatic for real. Grab your binoculars because it’s whale watching season! Whether your little sailors want to set out to sea, or your landlubbers want to look out from shore, read on to find out the best places to spot these magnificent marine mammals.


Photo: Sho Hatakeyama via Unsplash

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Whale Watching Adventures at Sea

Hornblower Cruises
The Hornblower might be best known for their dinner cruises around the harbor, but they’ve also partnered with the San Diego Natural History Museum for their whale & dolphin adventure excursions. For 3.5 hours, you and your whale spotting entourage will cruise around enjoying expert commentary from the captain and naturalists from theNAT. Sightings are guaranteed, but since migration activity isn’t always spot on, Hornblower Cruises will extend a pass to you and your party for a complimentary Harbor Cruise if a whale does not make an appearance.

Good to know: Outside snacks & beverages are not permitted, but there’s a snack bar on the yacht.

Cost: Starts at $23/person


Photo: fortherock via Flickr

San Diego Whale Watch
It’s always a bonus when businesses go the extra mile to make kids feel welcome. At San Diego Whale Watch, younger ticket holders will be given an activity pad and crayons so they may color or jot down their own observation notes. Your tour will be narrated by a certified marine biologist, and this company offers a “legendary whale guarantee,” which means if you don’t spot a whale or dolphin during your excursion, you can go on another tour for free. Note: San Diego Whale Watch also offers whale watching year round.

Insider’s Tip: If you’ve booked a morning tour, try to wake up even earlier and have breakfast at The Landing Grille. This dining nook is just steps from where you need to board, and you’re likely to hear stories from neighboring dining fishermen.

Cost: $48/adults and $44/military, senior citizen and children ages 2-17

Birch Aquarium at Scripps & Flagship San Diego Harbor Excursion
If your little whale watcher loves your visits to Birch Aquarium, he/she will be an even bigger fan after journeying to where the whales are with Flagship Cruises. Birch Aquarium ocean experts will be your guides as you embark on a 4-hour tour with the century-old cruise line. Visit the website before your charter to download a printable whale watching guide.

Cost: Starts at $20/person


Photo: Eric Neitzel via Flickr

H&M Landing
They’ve been in business since 1935, and we’re guessing the folks at H&M Landing are experts on whale migration. The prices here are affordable and they offer multiple discounts for their three and five hour tour times. Their fleet of boats is good enough for the U.S. Coast Guard, so you can rest assured that they’re well equipped to take you up close to the belly of the great grey whale.

Cost: Starts at $24/person

San Diego Maritime Museum & Next Level Sailing
The America yacht whale watching vessel is a 139-ft. beauty that’s likely to bring out the Jack Sparrow or Elizabeth Swann in you. Here, you’ll get a 4-hr. tour and the option to bring your own adult beverages. In other words, this is your opportunity to responsibly sip something sweet or something malty in San Diego’s slice of the Pacific without forking out lots of cash for your own yacht rental. Added perk: you’ll also get complimentary admission to the Maritime Museum.

Weekday cost: $75/adult; $37.50/children 18 & under
Weekend cost: $85/adult; $42.50/children 18 & under

Where to Spy Whales from Land


Photo: Beth Shea

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
When you prefer to spy whales from land, terrain that affords a panoramic view is a must. This La Jolla recreation spot offers expansive, breathtaking ocean views, after an easy climb to reach the crest of your hike. From this vantage point, you’re likely to spot a whale or two, so bring your binoculars for a closer look at these stunning creatures.

Cost: See website for vehicle fees at each parking entrance.


Photo: Cindee Swanson

Cabrillo National Monument
Whale watching at the Cabrillo National Monument is a package deal by natural design. In addition to the sweeping ocean views and viewfinders to help hone your search for whales, your family will enjoy a smorgasbord of nature-filled activities and learning opportunities. Bonus: Kids will love visiting the historic Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and exploring the tidepools here if it’s low tide.

Cost: $10/vehicle; $7/motorcyclists; $5/walk-ins, bicyclists

Where is your favorite place to spy whales? What are your tips for a successful whale watching adventure?

–– Jeannette Swanson


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