Gray Whales Travel Through San Diegan Waters on Their Winter Migration

Surfers and sailors aren’t the only ones who enjoy San Diego’s offshore playground, even in the depths of winter. Every year the eastern Pacific population of gray whales travels in small groups down the North American coastline towards the warm lagoons of the Baja California peninsula. Their annual voyage is considered the longest migration of any mammal. San Diegans are lucky to be able to witness this incredible venture – many gray whales can be seen here from mid-December through January, and from February through April on the return journey north.

Gray whales typically span 49 feet in length and can weigh up to 40 tons. They can be recognized by distinctive light gray patterns on their dark gray skin. They also have a series of raised bumps on their backs, known as a dorsal ridge, rather than a dorsal fin. Gray whales live in two populations on either side of the Pacific – the western population is critically endangered with approximately 130 individuals, while the eastern population off the North American coastline has over 20,000 individuals. The eastern population spends much of the year in Alaskan waters in between migrations to Baja California.


Want to see our giant visitors for yourself? There are plenty of ways to do so by land or sea.

If you’re watching from shore, try to schedule your viewing between mid-December and mid-February, when the whales travel closer to land. Great spots include the Birch Aquarium, Cabrillo National Monument, Scripps Park above La Jolla Cove, and Torrey Pines State Reserve. Gray whales dive for three to six minutes at a time before coming to the surface to breathe. They’ll blow three to five times before diving back down – when out watching, scan the water for spouts to find whales before pulling out the binoculars for a better view.

For a closer vantage point, there are quite a few options to get out on the water. Many whale watching cruises offer on-board guides who can tell you everything you want to know about the guests of honor, plus guaranteed sightings or you get a second trip free. If you’re looking for an even closer encounter, try a tour that takes you out on a smaller, faster vessel – or even a kayak tour that lets you paddle within 50 feet of the giant mammals.

Things to Bring on the Water

  • Warm layers to wear
  • Water-proof jacket
  • Motion sickness medication
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat or visor – don’t let it blow away!