Enjoying the ocean’s glorious natural wonders up close and personal

By Lindsey De Ryckere

Early in December on a still, serene San Diego morning, I boarded the Ohana. The three-plus-hour adventure that followed was exhilarating, to say the least. Although I am a native San Diegan, I had never been on a whale watching tour, but it has had a place at the top of my bucket list for quite some time.

Dress warmly. You can always shed layers. Being cold on the ocean can be miserable. During the winter months, the temperature in combination with the offshore winds can become very chilly (think Jack and Rose from “Titanic”). Sunscreen is also recommended, even on overcast days. While an SLR camera with a zoom lens is ideal, there are on-board photographers who will share their images and upload on the SD Whale Watch blog following most trips.

The double-decker Ohana is 65 feet from bow to stern and has a capacity of 128 persons. Although there is indoor seating with 360° views of Mission Bay and the Pacific, the deck is where all the action takes place. The galley is stocked with snacks, beer, wine, and even mimosas are available for purchase. If you are prone to sea-sickness, the crew recommends staying near the stern of the boat—it’s the most stable and flat location.

Our tour began at Sea Forth Landing in Mission Beach. The first boat leaves the docks at 10 a.m. sharp with check-in a half hour prior to departure. You can either reserve your ticket online or pay at the desk prior to the trip.

For the duration of the cruise, the knowledgeable and friendly staff makes passengers feel safe and comfortable. Naturalist Vanessa James gives an informational play-by-play throughout the trip and is readily available to answer any questions. In addition, Captain Cristin Kelly is a seasoned vet who expertly positions Ohana for any potential photo ops while being careful not to disturb the wildlife.  The five other crew members are also very approachable and attentive.

After we made it out of the “no wake” zone and through the channel, we were informed what to look for and the treasure hunt began. Keeping our eyes peeled for spouts, we journeyed out into the open waters. There is isn’t much of a set course, and, as noted by a crew member, “We let the sightings lead us!”

We first sighted a pod of 15 Pacific white-sided dolphins that were moving to the south. If that wasn’t exciting enough, another pod of over 75 common dolphins put on an awesome show and were even bow riding (surfing in the wake created by boats and ships)!

Next, we set out to the deep-water shelf where oceans depths drop off from 100 feet to 600–700 feet. The sightings kept coming when we passed California sea lions, a couple of elusive harbor seals and a variety of pelagic seabirds.


1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego, CA 92106 NPS.gov/CABR | FREE

2261 Avenida De La Playa, La Jolla, CA 92037 858.454.6195 | Prices upon request

Located south of the OB Pier, along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard | Just drive south! | FREE

12600 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037 Torreypine.org | FREE if you park outside the park gates

Delaney Trowbridge
Delaney Trowbridge
Delaney Trowbridge
Delaney Trowbridge
Delaney Trowbridge
Delaney Trowbridge

When we turned starboard back to the coast, the magic happened! A crewmember spotted spray from a blowhole in the distance.  It belonged to a single juvenile gray whale traveling south on its annual migration! We observed it traveling at 5 mph, coming up for 3–5 breaths, and going down for three-minute dives. To top it off, it breached seven times, which is very rare for these often elusive, majestic creatures.

The trip ran a little longer than the scheduled 180 minutes, but it was well worth it for the once-in-a-lifetime experience. In addition to whale watching, the three-hour cruise is ideal for bird watchers or those simply wanting to see San Diego from another perspective. The view of the San Diego coastline is epic.


6 – the speed at which a gray whale travels during migration
40 – the speed at which the common dolphin travels, making it the fastest marine mammal in the water
80 – number of species of living whales
1,100 – the weight in pounds of a newborn gray whale—and they are 15 feet long!
12,000 – the number of miles traveled round-trip by a gray whale during its migratory journey from the frigid Alaska water to the warm lagoons of Baja California, Mexico—the longest of any mammal


BALEEN – the apparatus toothless whales rely on to filter food from the sea, made out of keratin, a protein that is the same material that makes up our hair and fingernails
BOW – the most forward part of a vessel, the front
BREACH – the act of a whale launching out of the water for reasons such as exercise, play and communication
CETACEAN – any member of an entirely aquatic group of mammals commonly known as whales, dolphins and porpoises
FLUKE – a whale’s tale which moves up and down to propel the whale through the water
PELAGIC – relating to or living in areas of the sea, commonly referring to seabirds
PINNIPED – any of a group of 34 species of aquatic carnivorous fin-footed mammals comprising of seals, sea lions and the walrus
STERN – the back of the boat, opposite of the bow
TOOTHED WHALE – have teeth, only one blowhole (baleen whales have two) and are generally smaller than most baleen whales

1717 Quivira Road, San Diego, CA 92109
619.839.0128 | sdwhalewatch.com