5 Fun Animal Encounters (Beyond The Zoo) In San Diego

Visit these centers and habitats to get up-close and personal looks at some of Southern California’s wildlife

Whale watching can be had year-round in the waters off San Diego, California, and if you’re lucky, you may catch an awe-inspiring aerial display.


Everyone knows San Diego, California, has amazing beaches, some of the best tacos north of the border and a warm, sunny climate year-round. But this Pacific Coast city also has lots of activities for animal-loving families—and we’re not talking about just the zoo. From San Diego whale watching to getting up close and personal with wolves, you'll be sure to bring home plenty of memories. So, book your hotel and add these Southern California attractions to your itinerary!

Whale-watch on your own or with a guide

You can search for whales by land or sea pretty much any time of year in San Diego. Year-round, it’s possible to spot humpback, minke and finback whales; gray whales migrate mid-December to April and blue whales migrate mid-June to September. While gray whales are easy to spot offshore from places like the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, blue whales tend to migrate in deeper waters and are best spotted from a boat. Book a San Diego whale watching tour out of Mission Bay—you may run into sea lions, seals and dolphins, too.

Learn about different butterfly species at Butterfly Farms

Spot all kinds of butterfly species, including the monarch and lesser-known breeds such as cabbage whites, painted ladies, anise swallowtails and cloudless sulphur at Butterfly Farms. This 2,000-square-foot nonprofit vivarium, the largest of its kind in Southern California, opened in 2013 and offers one-hour guided tours as well as self-guided tours on butterfly conservation and pollination. The entrance fee to Butterfly Farms is $5 per person, and children under the age of three can visit free of charge.

See gray wolves in action at the California Wolf Center

Become a member of the pack with a guided tour at the California Wolf Center.

Dancing with wolves may not be an option, but you can take a public or private tour at the California Wolf Center (a nonprofit wildlife education center) to learn about wolf history, biology and behaviors. Tours include guided observations of two packs of wolves—North American gray wolves and Mexican gray wolves—and range in price from $15 to $80. Reservations are required for all tours, and private tours are available.

Search for sea life in local tide pools

Low tide means San Diego tide pools are plentiful, and looking for organisms like sea cucumbers, sea anemones and starfish is fun (and free!) for the whole family. Low tide at sunset is especially magical; head to Cabrillo National Monument or Seaside Beach (at Cardiff State Beach) and take in the coastal beauty, which extends beyond the tide to include majestic caves and cliffs. It’s OK to look at and take pictures of marine life, but to preserve these majestic habitats, please don’t touch or remove critters.

Sunbathe with seals at the La Jolla Cove Children’s Pool

Sunbathe alongside sea life at the La Jolla Cove Children’s Pool.

Despite its name, the Children’s Pool is not an actual pool. It’s a section of the beach with a sea wall built around it. The pool was once intended as a safe place for kids to play and swim, but today, it’s been taken over by sunbathing harbor seals (and sometimes sea lions, too). You can still share the beach with them—and even swim—but keep a respectful distance from the seals. They are wild animals after all. Children’s Pool Beach is closed from December 15 to May 15 during harbor seal pupping season, and when open, is patrolled by San Diego Lifeguards.



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