Whale Watching off the Coronado Coast

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Off the beautiful sandy beaches of Coronado, California gray whales head south to the warm waters of Baja Mexico. From December to April, you can spot these majestic creatures, both on land and aboard a whale-watching tour boat. Gray whales are baleen whales that migrate from the frigid waters of Alaska, past the southern coast of California and into the lagoons of Baja Mexico to give birth and raise their young. The gray whale’s 5,000 mile journey is the longest known annual migration to be made by a mammal, and we are very lucky this time of year to see them close to home.

There are plenty of options when it comes to whale watching in San Diego, both for those who want to stay on land and for those who want to board an ocean-going vessel and see the animals up close. On a clear day, you can watch the beaks of passing whales at Cabrillo National Monument, at the far end of Point Loma. There’s a small fee to enter the national park, but the breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, San Diego Bay, Coronado Island, and the city skyline are worth it. The new glass-encased observatory is the perfect place to spot gray whales, as well as helpful plaques explaining what to look for and coin-operated viewing machines to make the job easier. Another great place to see gray whales is Scripps’ Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.

If you’re up for a closer look, you can take a half-day whale-watching tour out of San Diego Harbor. Flagship Cruises (formerly San Diego Harbor Excursion) and Hornblower Cruises offer three and a half trips for up-close whale watching on large, comfortable vessels. Both companies have two daily departures, morning and afternoon, and offer a whale sighting guarantee: if you don’t see a whale on your trip, you receive a voucher for another free excursion! On board you also have the chance to see dolphins, sea lions, harbor seals and enjoy a short tour of San Diego Bay as you enter and leave the port. Another perk for locals and visitors to Coronado is the ability to take the convenient Coronado Ferry across the bay, which drops you just yards from the docks home to the two whale-watching fleets.

Some essentials for whale watching include: binoculars, camera, warm clothing (even on hot sunny days, conditions can be chilly on the water), sunscreen, comfortable shoes and patience. Also remember to take over-the-counter anti-seasickness medication before boarding, if necessary; I learned that it never hurts to be prepared! If you are prone to seasickness, it is also best to stay outboard and towards the center of the ship, and keep your eyes fixed on the distant horizon.

Both adults and children will love the thrill of sailing the seas on a whale watching adventure. From experience, I recommend claiming all the way to the very bow of the ship, or as close to the front as possible. When whales are sighted, the ship’s captain will often point the ship towards them, putting you in the perfect position for whale watching and able to see both ways as well. You never know what you’re going to encounter, and it’s always wise to keep your camera ready and ready!

Recently I embarked on my own whale watching excursion from San Diego Harbor and captured these great shots of California gray whales, other whale watching boats and magnificent views of my hometown, Coronado.

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