SAN DIEGO – San Diego is a popular destination for visitors looking to come to the United States, from gorgeous beaches and awesome sunsets to delicious tacos and buzzing nightlife.

But one of the attractions making San Diego a favorite among tourists isn’t the beaches or nice weather, it’s whale watching.

CiCi Sayer has been a whale watching captain for over a decade. Owner of Offshore Blue Adventures in Mission Bay, she’s seen demand for her tours increase significantly over the last few years.

“It’s been a pretty constant stream of telephone calls of people looking to book,” she told

Sayer says that, for many tourists she gets, going on a whale watching tour is one of the first things they do during their stay in San Diego.

“We get a lot of people who are like, ‘Oh, we just got here in San Diego’ and the first thing you want to do is go whale watching,” Sayer said. “Some people come to town just for that.”

That rang true for R’Minda Russell, a San Diego resident who moved here from Ohio about four years ago. Whales are her favorite animal, she told, so it was at the top of her list of things to do as soon as she arrived in California.

“It’s really cool seeing them in their habitat,” Russell said of her first venture. “I was smiling ear to ear the whole time.”

That’s why whale watching has been rapidly growing as a form of ecotourism, with one report from the International Whaling Commission estimating that the industry generated over $2 billion worldwide in 2009. 

According to captains like Sayer, whale watching tours – when done responsibly – provide those aboard with a once-in-a-lifetime experience seeing these creatures up close, all while educating passengers about marine life around them.

“It’s just mind-blowing to see these animals out in the wild,” Sayer said. “A lot of these people have never gone out whale watching, so when they get out and they see a whale, it’s an amazing experience for them.”

In the United States, San Diego has become one of the go-to destinations for those looking for that experience, alongside cities in Alaska and Northern California.

But what makes San Diego unique from other whale watching destinations in North America, captains say, is that operators are able to offer tours all year, since the area has optimal boating weather year-round.

“Obviously the weather for us to go see the whales is much better than trying to go up in Vancouver or Alaska,” said Rich Gallegos, a whale watching captain and owner of Tailwalker Whale & Dolphin Adventures. “We’re not like some of the ones up north, where you’ve got to take a seaplane to some other little village and then go out.” 

San Diego also happens to be situated right in the middle of several different species’ migration patterns, giving visitors more chances to spot a whale or two.

“Everybody knows about the gray whale season … right now we’re in the thick of it,” Sayer said of the species that passes by San Diego on their way to Mexico in the winter and early spring.

Other species like humpback, fin and blue whales also make their way through the waters near San Diego as they’re headed down south. Humpbacks are generally easier to spot in the spring and fall, while fin and blue whales are more plentiful along the coast in summer.

Since her first tour, Russell has tried to get everyone around her to go whale watching with her. In November of last year, Russell took her parents out on an excursion while they were visiting from Ohio for the first time since she moved here.

“I think they had more fun visiting the whales than they had visiting me,” she laughed. 

Russell said she and her parents saw five humpback whales breach the water – something which ignited excitement in everyone on board, including the captain. 

“On these tours, everybody acts like little kids,” she said. “Everybody is giddy when they see the whales.”