Whale Watching in San Diego

This is a guest post by Susan Guillory of The Unexplorer.

You know how sometimes you stumble across something in your city and you think, “Wow! This is cool. I had no idea it was here?” Well, that’s a bit of what my recent experience taking the Hornblower Cruises & Events’ Whale & Dolphin Watching Adventure. I had heard of the cruise, but like most San Diegans, hadn’t taken advantage of this gem in my own city.


A Whale of a Tour (With a Few Dolphins Thrown In)

These tours are only available a limited time (December through April) because the whales migrate from up near Alaska all the way down to Baja California in Mexico. Every day, about 200 whales pass by San Diego! Who knew?! These three-hour tours go out past the San Diego Harbor and North Island Naval Air Station to open waters where the whales (and occasionally dolphins, though we saw few) spout or flip their tails in greeting.


On our way out of the harbor, the captain gave fantastic details on the naval station, pointing out military helicopters and buildings, as well as historical information on the area.

Spouting, Spy-Hopping, and Breaching

It’s hilarious to watch a ship full of full grown adults ooh, aah, and clap every time a whale spouts (expelling water through their nostrils on top of their heads). Yes, it was enthralling…the first few times. Staring off into the ocean hoping you’re looking in the right spot can be tiring. But the captain did an excellent job of guiding us where to look.


After reading my informational pamphlet on whale watching, I wanted to see some spy-hopping (where gray whales pop their heads out vertically to get a look around) or breaching (a giant leap out of the water), but the whales did not grace us with more than spouts and one tail flip.

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I wished I’d had a telephoto lens, because taking a photo as far away as we were didn’t net the best photos. If you have one, bring it!


Cruise Amenities

The ship was pretty comfortable, with both outside and inside seating. Because it was a bit chilly and windy (yes, San Diego does experience a degree of winter), we stayed inside. There was a snack bar that offered a wide range of treats, though they weren’t particularly amazing.

There were even barf bags scattered throughout the ship, which apparently came in handy for a young tourist seated near us (we quickly relocated after that).


The only drawback was the length. Three hours is plenty of time to see many whales if they’re out. My son, who is 11, was pretty bored by the end. Luckily he had his puzzle cube!

Need to know:

Because the tour gets so close to Mexico (you can see it in the distance), the captain will encourage you to put your phone on airplane mode to avoid roaming charges.

Insider tip: Think twice before bringing small children who won’t be able to tolerate three hours with limited activity, or bring plenty for them to do.

If You Go:

Hornblower Cruises & Events (619) 686-8715

970 North Harbor Drive
San Diego, California 92101

Article and photography by travel writer Susan Guillory. I received two complimentary Whale & Dolphin Watching Adventure tickets, however all opinions are my own.