Every year in the winter/early spring, something pretty major happens in San Diego, though relatively few locals take notice. Whales — primarily gray whales — slide past San Diego on their way from Alaska to Baja California. A whopping 200 whales pass by our fair city, silent hulking masses beneath the sea.

I was invited by Hornblower Cruises & Events to take their Whale & Dolphin Watching Adventure at no charge, so Max and I enjoyed a three-hour tour (you’re singing Gilligan’s Island’s theme song now, aren’t you?) to get up close(ish) and personal with some sea life.

Boning Up on the Underwater World

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The tour promised whales, four kinds of dolphins, sea lions, and sea birds. In fact, the tour has a guarantee: if you don’t see any whales, you get a ticket to come back for another tour. Kinda hard to predict the wildlife, I guess.

We saw about 8 gray whales, at least their humps and tails. I’d suggest bringing a camera with a long lens, because mine didn’t do them justice.

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We learned that mama whales are pregnant for a year (!!!) and then their babies are the size of a Volkswagen within just a few days. There was a calf in the waters, but I didn’t see it. Ideally, the mamas have their babies when they reach their destination (Baja California, where the waters are warmer than the frozen ones they left near Alaska), but, well, you can’t predict childbirth either, so it seemed that at least one pregnant whale gave birth on her migration down.

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There were several volunteers from the San Diego Natural History Museum who came around and told us more about the whales, and the captains were extremely knowledgeable as well. I came out with lots of whale facts I can now whip out at a cocktail party!

I wish we’d seen some pods of dolphins, but all we got were a few fins on our way back.

If You Go

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The ship is perfectly accommodated for a long boat ride. You can sit outside at a table or on a bench, or inside, which suited us, since it was a chilly and windy day. There’s a snack bar to keep you satiated (Gilligan’s crew would be jealous). My only word of advice is that if you have young children, be aware of how much longer three hours will be for you than anyone else. My son is 11 and had his Rubik’s Cube to occupy him, but I could see younger children having a meltdown at the prospect of being confined in the middle of the ocean for that long.

These tours run December-April, so if you’re planning a trip here during that period, get on it. Also: look for Groupon deals, as I’ve seen several.