Your Guide to Whale Watching

It’s the perfect time for whale watching in San Diego!

Every winter, about 20,000 Pacific gray whales travel 10,000 miles round-trip (the longest migration of any mammal on earth) from Alaska to the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico. That makes San Diego, with its 78 miles of coastline directly in the migration path, the perfect place to watch.
If you’re staying in one of our oceanfront or ocean view properties, you have a great chance of seeing these incredible creatures. Since our condos are up high on the bluffs, you’ll have a great view of the ocean. All you need is a little patience! Be sure to grab some binoculars for a closer look.



The whales are migrating south towards Mexico, so they will be moving from the north to the south. Expect them to be moving at a steady clip of about five miles per hour, and although some whales swim close to shore, most swim in an area that extends past the kelp beds (about three-quarters of a mile out) to the horizon.
According to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, gray whales generally travel alone or in pods of two or three but more may be seen traveling together during peak migration season (Mid-January), so keep an eye out for large pods.


The Blow or Spout
When warm, moist air exhaled from the whales’ lungs meets the cool air at the ocean surface, it creates what we call a blow or spout. A gray whale’s blow can spray up to 15 feet high, and each blow is visible for about five seconds. Anticipate that the whale will dive for three to six minutes, then surface for three to five blows in row, 30 to 50 seconds apart, before diving deep for three to six minutes again. The blow is often heart shaped.


The Flukes (Tail)
Before making a deep dive, a gray whale often displays its 12-foot wide fan-shaped flukes or tail. The weight of the tail above the whale’s body helps it to dive deep, so you’ll see it surface just before they go under.


Knuckled Back and Footprint
Gray whales do not have a dorsal fin. If the lighting is right, and if the whale is close enough, it’s possible to see the back of a gray whale during and after the blow. It’s generally shiny and black or gray, with a knuckled ridge along the spine. After the whale submerges you may note an elongated, smooth oval of calm water, known as a footprint, where the whale has been.


Breach and Splash
Gray whales occasionally hurl themselves out of the water and plunge back in with a tremendous splash. This is called breaching. Scientists don’t know exactly why they do this, but it’s incredible to watch. Sometimes other whales in the area will copy the behavior, so keep your eyes open! Typically, gray whales do not breach as often as other species of whales.


If You Do Spot a Whale…
Remember that they are migrating south — so once you’ve spotted a whale, you can expect that it will surface again to the south. After watching an individual gray whale for a while, you will be able to anticipate its unique rhythm of breaths and dives and where it will surface next.
In spring, the gray whales will migrate north again, but they are usually too far out in the ocean to see from shore.


•  Adult gray whales can be up to 45 feet long and weigh up to 33 tons! Males are slightly smaller than females. They live 50-60 years.

•  A whale’s fluke (tail) has no bones; it only connects to the body and tail muscles by banks of tendons.

•  Gray whales search for food such as tiny shrimp-like animals on the bottom of the ocean.

•  Gray whales have plates of baleen that hang from their upper jaws and filter food.

•  Gray whales rarely feed while migrating or during the winters in the tropical waters; feeding occurs almost exclusively during the summers and animals live off of fat reserves while breeding.

•  During feeding, each gray whale eats about 1.3 tons of food per day.

•  Gray whales were close to extinction in the 1850s and again in the early 1900s before laws were passed in 1946 to protect them. Today, eastern pacific population is going strong at 20,000+ individuals.

•  Killer whales (orcas) and humans are gray whale’s only predators.


If you want to get up close and personal, a whale watching tour is your best bet. Book a tour through any number of whale watching companies in the area. Stubbs recommends Flagship Cruises & Events at 990 North Harbor Drive in downtown San Diego or Oceanside Adventures at 256 Harbor Drive South, Oceanside, CA 92054.


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