Gray Whales in San Diego

Eschrichtius robustus

Over 20,000 Gray whales pass by San Diego every winter starting in late December through April. Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) migrate past San Diego as they travel between their summer feeding grounds to the north and their winter breeding destinations to the south. The Gray whale migration is a highlight to our year round whale watching season. For the most up to date sightings reports on Gray whales in San Diego be sure to follow our Instagram and Facebook pages.

Gray Whale Info

Description – Gray whales are a unique species of baleen whale, the only species in their family. They have a robust body that reaches over 45 feet in length and weighs up to 80,000 pounds. They are named for their coloration which is dark gray with large white patches comprised of barnacles and sea lice. Gray whales have short and wide pectoral fins and a deeply notched tail fin that can be 10 feet wide. They have a dorsal hump, but no dorsal fin.

Range – Gray whales can only be found in the north Pacific Ocean. The vast majority of the population (20,000+) migrates between Alaska in the summer and the Mexican Baja in winter. They are a coastal species spending most of their time in shallow waters where they feed, reproduce and migrate. This makes them easier to observe during their migration through San Diego with large numbers in close proximity to the coastline.

Behavior – Gray whales have one of the longest migrations of all the great whales. Over 12,000 miles round trip between feeding in the Northern Bering and Chukchi seas to their breeding and calving grounds in the Mexican Baja. During their migration southwards we often see groups of 4-5 whales together in unstable groups. They can be very active whales, breaching and usually showing their tails when diving.

Once in their nursery areas the Gray whale is known as one of the most inquisitive whales, especially the cows and calves. They spend their winters in the sheltered waterways, bays and lagoons of Baja, Mexico. Here they spend their time mating, calving, socializing and resting.

On the northern migration we see adult Gray whales first, followed by the cows and calves. Back in their feeding grounds the Gray whales employ a unique method for a baleen whale. They scoop up sediment from the sea bottom to strain amphipods (crustaceans), which are their target prey species.


The Gray whale population is the first of the ‘Great Whales’ to rebound from commercial whaling pressures. In 2015 an international Gray whale population census recorded over 22,000 Gray whales in the eastern Pacific population. It is believed that this number is equivalent to the pre-commercial whaling population. This makes the Gray whales a wonderful story of conservation success and proof that with a proper management strategy the ocean can rebound from human pressures.

Gray whales are still under threat, particularly from entanglement in fishing gear and pollution. As Gray whales are a coastal species, they are more likely to encounter fishing equipment, especially if it is tethered to the sea floor. As well, feeding close to shore from the sea floor, Gray whales are more likely to ingest garbage and pollutants from run off.

Oceanic Eco Tours is pleased to support the recovery and conservation of the Gray whale population with respectful whale watching practices, limiting our noise pollution in their environment, removing ocean trash and participating in Gray whale census reporting.