Mom Tested: Whale watching
Is a whale watching adventure with children all it’s cracked up to be?

Whale watching is one of San Diego’s more popular winter activities.

Every year, as the mammals make their way south to Baja, they can be easily spotted just a few miles off the coast. And with so many companies offering tours, you can really get up close to the whales and other sea animals as they swim by.

This certainly sounds like a fantastic activity to do with children — you’ve got a boat ride, they’re learning about sea life and you get several uninterrupted hours of quality family time.

But is it really so fantastic?

Along with the adventure, there’s plenty of potential for disaster, including seasickness and overwhelming boredom.

So in this month’s installment of Mom-Tested, Mom-Approved we go on a 3½-hour Hornblower tour to find out if whale watching is actually all it’s cracked up to be.

Hornblower Cruises Whale Watching Tour

When: 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily through March 31; 9:30 a.m. April 1 to 27. (April dates may change depending on ocean activity.)

Where: Navy Pier, 970 North Harbor Drive, Embarcadero

Tickets: $37 to $40, with children discounts available

Telephone: (888) 467-6256



Hornblower, as well as many other companies, offers trips that average about $40 per person (kids sometimes ride for half price). The season began in December with whales headed south, and continues through mid-April with the mammals heading back north. Rebecca Milkey, a spokeswoman for Hornblower Cruises, said there’s been a lot of activity this season, with plenty of grays, humpbacks and dolphins spotted almost daily.


The key to a successful whale-watching trip is to be as prepared as possible. This means pre-ordering your tickets for minimal line waiting, having cash handy for parking and snacks, checking weather conditions to know how many sweaters and jackets you’ll inevitably end up carrying, and stocking up on Dramamine.

You can also temper expectations by checking, a blog that gives detailed accounts of what’s spotted in the ocean each day.

Tip: Read the Dramamine label! The anti-nausea medicine can make you drowsy; even the non-drowsy formula.

Gray whales, seen surfacing off the coast of San Diego, can usually be spotted from December through mid April. u-t file photos


While you may be tempted to find metered parking along the Embarcadero, it’s worth the $10 to park in the USS Midway Museum parking lot. It’s an easy walk, mostly away from heavy traffic, to the ticket booth and the boat. And it really pays off when you disembark and want nothing more than to be close to your car.

People begin lining up 30 to 45 minutes before the scheduled boarding time, which translates into a lot of chatty children looking to make new friends.

Meltdown probability: Low to medium — the preboarding excitement helps keep everyone calm.

Rating: 4 out of 5 happy faces


Most people want to sit on the ship’s top, outdoor level. There are plenty of benches and tables there, but on a busy day not everyone will get to sit in that prime location. There are some outdoor spots on the second level, too, but the remaining seats are indoors. Don’t be too disappointed if that’s where you end up, as it’s a long trip and most people move around the boat anyway.

Meltdown probability: Low to medium

Rating: 4 out of 5 happy faces

It takes about 30 minutes to get out of the bay and into the ocean, and that’s an easy ride that takes you by various local landmarks, including the Cabrillo National Monument. Once the boat reaches the Pacific, things get more choppy and the boat slows down as it tries to pinpoint whale activity.

The ship’s captain does a good job of explaining what’s going on, and there are really friendly volunteers from the San Diego Natural History Museum on board to talk about whale migration or share fun facts.

Still, the novelty of being on a boat ride eventually wears off, so it’s a good idea to bring crayons, paper, a book or even toys as a distraction. (Unless you’re OK with walking a toddler back and forth for hours, or hearing “I’m bored” a million times.)

Tip: Put your cellphone on airplane mode as the ship may cross into Mexico and you’ll get hit with roaming charges.

Meltdown probability: High. It’s going to happen sometime on the trip. Accept it.

Rating: 3 out of 5 happy faces

The top deck of the boat has a snack stand where you can find sodas, candy bars, crackers, sandwiches and salads that range from $1 to $15. There’s also a full bar. Lots of passengers opt to bring their own food, and there are indoor tables on the second level that still offer a full view of the ocean.

Meltdown probability: Medium to high, especially if children spot all those candy options.

Rating: 4 out of 5 happy faces

It’s very likely that along the way to finding gray or humpback whales, you’ll run into dolphins. On this particular trip, there were hundreds of them playfully swimming and leaping close to the ship, captivating everyone.

Whales move a lot more slowly and are much harder to spot. And when you finally do see one, you’re either looking at a spout of water or, if you’re lucky, a tail. While adults can appreciate the rarity and excitement of being so close to wild animals, children just want more playful dolphins.

Even though most kids are ready to move on after one or two spottings, the boat stays out for at least another hour.

Meltdown probability: Medium, depending on ocean activity.

Rating: 4 out of 5 happy faces

It’s feels like it takes forever. The Dramamine drowsy period’s probably kicking in. Everyone is sick of each other. Good thing the Natural History Museum volunteers have a short presentation to take the edge off.

Meltdown probability: Inevitable

Rating: 1 out of 5 happy faces

Even though there’s a lot of waiting and whining, it truly is exciting to see whales up close. Spotting whales takes patience, silence and concentration but the experience (and the investment) is definitely worth it for older elementary school kids to teens. Those with younger families may want to seek out a shorter, 90-minute excursion or wait a few years.

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