We’re lucky to have animal encounters in San Diego that are naturally-occurring, at wildlife sanctuaries, or in our conservation-minded attractions like San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Did you know that parents specifically plan San Diego family vacations to cultivate their kids’ interests in oceanography? Leopard sharks, tide pools, and seals aside, we have even more to offer animal lovers away from the coast. Our mountains and valleys are home to an exotic animal sanctuary, a camel dairy, and raptor schools, to name a few. We’re even a part of the Pacific Flyway used by migratory birds.
Some of these animal interactions in San Diego are free ways to enjoy the outdoors while others require admission. Many of them are well-known and on my list of things to do in San Diego with kids. However, I’m willing to bet there may be a new-to-you idea on this list and you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy it!
OFFERINGS MAY BE MODIFIED
Due to current circumstances some offerings at our open attractions may be temporarily modified. But most can be seen or booked now.
1. La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions
While I may be biased, I adore our La Jolla seals and sea lions. I have written extensively about how to visit them. The two pinniped groups hang out in two different spots. However, if you are kayaking or snorkeling in the La Jolla Underwater Park, you may find yourself in the water next to either one.
Children’s Pool Beach is a rare urban seal rookery where harbor seals rest on the sand and give birth during the pupping season, which is between December 15–May 15. During pupping season, the beach closes to humans. In the summer, when people can sunbathe and swim in the ocean here, our seals tend to vacate early in the morning and return near sundown. Needless to say, if you time your visit right, you’re likely to catch a glimpse of seals flopping around or sleeping on the beach.
Just a few minutes’ walk away, sea lions make Point La Jolla at the south end of the La Jolla Cove their home. Man, are they chatty and fun to watch! Kids adore them but adults spend plenty of time taking in their shenanigans, too.
THEY’RE CUTE BUT PLEASE KEEP YOUR DISTANCE
I implore you to keep your distance even though these wild animals are used to humans. Bring a zoom lens just in case (I do). If you stay on the boardwalk, they’re usually close enough for a great photo. Even if they’re not, you’ll still see and hear them.
2. San Diego Zoo Safari Park Lorikeets, Wallabies, and Caravan Safari
Note: Animal encounters are temporarily unavailable so this information is for when they resume. Some upgraded tours are available. If you buy San Diego Zoo or Safari Park tickets using my links I may be compensated, but I have the best price!
I love San Diego Zoo Safari Park for its various animal interactions and conservation initiatives. You can typically (if they’re hungry and willing) feed rhinos and giraffes on the Caravan Safari which is an upgraded experience that I recommend. Caravan Safari is temporarily unavailable, but you can still get closer to the animals with a Behind-the-Scenes Safari or a new 1-hour Wildlife Safari.
Many animal interactions San Diego Zoo Safari Park offers are included with general admission. Speaking of admission, I’ve written extensively about how to find a San Diego Zoo Safari Park tickets discount so that you can pay less for the privilege.
A petting zoo full of mostly sheep and goats awaits in Nairobi Village. In this kid-friendly zone, you also may run into a few friendly animal ambassadors outside of the petting area.
I suggest heading over to Walkabout Australia first thing. You’ll want to be there when the wallabies are let out in the morning. You can walk through their habitat and they literally bounce around you. It’s fun. Then, head over to the platypuses.
For a few dollars, buy a cup of nectar to feed the pretty lorikeets over in Lorikeet Landing. They’ll even land on your arms sometimes while eating it.
Lorikeets tend to fill up with nectar provided by generous guests and eat less later in the day.
3. San Diego Zoo Inside Look, VIP, and Other Tours
Note: Offerings are temporarily modified but full buyouts of tours are available.
San Diego Zoo normally offers Keeper Talks to learn more about the animals and some Galapagos tortoise feeding opportunities (if you time your visit to their enclosure right). The best animal encounters at San Diego Zoo are through the Inside Look and VIP tours. Both San Diego Zoo tours are available for private buyout right now.
You’ll be led into keeper-only areas and get closer to animals than guests normally can. The itinerary changes based on which theme you choose or, in the case of the VIP tour, where your interests lie. However, kids love the ability to get all of their burning questions about animals and animal care answered by keepers and staff. You can find a San Diego Zoo tickets discount right here.
4. La Jolla Leopard Sharks
La Jolla leopard sharks begin to arrive at La Jolla Shores Beach in June. They stay in the area as late as December and numbers usually peak in August and September. So, if you’re going out of your way to see them, these are the two best months to visit.
Pregnant female leopard sharks have been coming here for decades. Scientists recently learned that it’s basically because of sheer convenience. The warm shallow ocean water helps speed up the incubation process. Plus, they have a nearby food source in the nearby La Jolla Canyon. It’s win-win for them and why it’s the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world.
Bring your snorkel gear to head out on your own. Or, book a special leopard shark snorkeling tour during peak months. You can sometimes just stand in knee-deep water during August and September near The Marine Room restaurant and they’ll swim around you.
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5. Living Coast Discovery Center
Note: Temporarily closed.
More animal encounters in San Diego await at Living Coast Discovery Center, just 15 minutes south of downtown. The goal of the nonprofit center is to connect visitors with our coastal Southern California flora and fauna in order to inspire mindfulness when it comes to caring for our environment.
When it’s open, you can book private animal encounters or join a group animal encounter for a nominal extra fee. Options include reptile meet and greets, feeding rays, meeting raptors or parrots, and more. You can also check the schedule for daily animal feedings.
6. Blue or Gray Whale Watching
It’s possible to go whale watching in San Diego nearly year-round. The two main seasons are gray whale watching seasons in the winter and spring, and blue whale watching season in the summer and fall. Humpback whales hang out in our ocean year-round. You may also see fin whales and others like this beluga whale that mystified scientists.
In addition to spotting whales, these tours can be a spectacular way to spend a day inadvertently sightseeing from the water. If you depart from the San Diego Bay, you’ll pass the Coronado Bridge and USS Midway among other landmarks. You’re also likely to also see sea lions, birds, fish, and other sea life.
7. San Diego Tide Pools
One of my favorite naturally-occurring animal encounters San Diego has to offer is winter tide pooling. Check the tide calendars for daytime minus tides and then head out to our San Diego tide pools. In these habitats, you’ll see hermit crabs, sea anemones, small fish, sea slugs, two-spot octopus (rare but they hide), snails, and more.
I recommend tide pool tours led by Birch Aquarium naturalists who are trained to spot creatures that you may not know to look for.
8. Birch Aquarium Tide Pools and Tours
Note: Birch Aquarium is temporarily closed.
When it’s not tide pool season, head up to Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Human-made tide pools on their outdoor terrace, which also boasts a panoramic ocean view, house many sea creatures that we see in naturally-occurring Southern California tide pools. Docents are available to facilitate safe touching and you can check the daily schedule for tide pool feedings.
Also check their offsite programming which includes whale watching tours, leopard shark snorkeling tours, the already-mentioned tide pool tours, summer camps, pier walks, behind-the-scenes tours, and much more.
9. Grunion Runs
Grunion runs in San Diego between March and September are worth staying awake for. These skinny, silver, slippery fish actually leave the water to lay eggs in the sand. Forecasters predict their arrival well in advance. They leave the water as our highest tides of the year start to recede, leaving plenty of wet sand behind.
You’ll need to adhere to the two seasons. One is an open season where you’re permitted to catch grunion with a valid fishing license. Closed season means that you can only observe their activity. Grunion prefers spawning on sandy beaches like North Pacific Beach and La Jolla Shores Beach. Avoid trying to see them on the rockier beaches.
I recommend bringing a camping headlamp because you’ll need a small light source to see them. It’s easy to drop smartphones in the water — I’ve seen it happen.
10. Snorkeling in the La Jolla Underwater Park
Outside of leopard shark season, scuba diving and snorkeling in San Diego are very popular. Thank the La Jolla Underwater Park with its kelp beds, submarine canyons, reefs, and sandy flats that are full of marine life. Visibility underwater can reach up to 30 feet which is unusual for Southern California.
You may find a friendly sea lion swim up to you in addition to sea turtles (if you know where to look), squid, rays, and a variety of other fish. There’s no need to swim very far into the ocean to see sea life. Novices can walk right from La Jolla Cove or La Jolla Shores beaches with their snorkel gear.
11. Butterfly Farms
Visit Butterfly Farms between April and November to observe the flurries of pretty butterflies born, raised, and studied in the 3000-square-foot Vivarium, which guests may walk into. The research performed here supports Monarch and other native butterfly conservation.
During any time of the year, stop into the adjacent Luca Micaela Nursery. They specialize in nectar and host plants for pollinators so you can pick up some lovely milkweed for your garden.
12. Nurtured by Nature Swimming with Otters
I’ve tried to make reservations to swim with Asian Small-Clawed Otters at Nurtured by Nature several times. This unique animal encounter in San Diego sells out quickly, thanks to some national media features.
These swims help support animal care, but you can feel good about the cost. Nurtured by Nature is a Make-A-Wish Foundation partner. Follow them on Facebook to see photos of smiling families enjoying what I would call some much-needed animal therapy. How can you not laugh when wiggly otters swim and climb all over you?
Part of the 3-hour experience involves feeding or interacting with other animals, including armadillo, porcupine, kangaroo, sloth, lemurs, and more. If you’re looking for a sloth encounter in San Diego, this is the place.
13. California Wolf Center
California Wolf Center is one of the two animal encounters in San Diego to stop at on a day trip to Julian. (Oasis Camel Dairy mentioned below is the second.) They’re a sanctuary dedicated to rehabilitating and releasing wolves. Part of their mission includes teaching people how to live in harmony with them.
The new Julian Visitor Center and Nature Store in the heart of the downtown area showcases the California Wolf Center’s work. To tour the nearby Conservation Center, where the several packs of gray wolves live, you’ll need to make a reservation.
14. Oasis Camel Dairy
Did you know that camel milk is really good for your skin? Oasis Camel Dairy specializes in nourishing soaps, lip balms, and other skincare products that people swear by. However, you can stop in during special event times like once-monthly Open Farm Days to meet and ride on the camels.
Book a Private Tour, to also feed apple pops to the camels and see other animals living in the sanctuary like sheep, turkeys, and parrots. It’s just off of the main road to Julian, with plenty of signage to guide you.
15. Lions Tigers & Bears Exotic Animal Sanctuary
Lions Tigers & Bears is an exotic animal sanctuary in Alpine, about 45 minutes from downtown San Diego. Over 60 rescued exotic animals live in this safe and nurturing environment.
Here, you can book one of the most daring animal encounters in San Diego — the Feed with a Keeper Experience. On this 2-hour tour, you’ll meet big cats and other exotic animals like bears, llamas, sheep, and peacocks. You’ll also be able to choose a big cat or bear to help feed! To visit, you will need to book a tour, member for a day, or VIP experience in advance.
16. Falconry in La Jolla and Alpine
Yes, you can take falconry lessons in San Diego. Majestic raptors will actually take off from and land on your glove. I took my lesson with Sky Falconry, who offers falconry classes and hawk walks now on their beautiful Alpine ranch (I took my lesson in La Jolla).
17. Children’s Nature Retreat
Children’s Nature Retreat in Alpine, California is home to over 130 animals from around the world including zebra, bison, miniature horses, mini cows, Friesians horses, camels, tortoises, peacocks, pigs and more. Many of the animals are rescued. The goal is to provide a place for kids to bond with them and form a deeper appreciation for nature.
General admission provides animal interactions from outside of the enclosures. You can upgrade your day to include interaction inside your favorite animal enclosures. Other encounters include the opportunity to shadow and assist a keeper for a full day, which includes plenty of animal interaction. You can also book guided tours and behind-the-scenes tours.
Your visit also helps fund The Children’s Nature Retreat Foundation’s other projects. In line with their mission to foster a love of learning in kids, they help families in Burkina Faso, West Africa receive access to pre-school through high school education.
18. Wild Wonders Educational Programming (They Can Come to You)
Over 120 rescued, owner-surrendered, confiscated, and non-releasable animal ambassadors live at Wild Wonders in Bonsall. In fact, you may have seen owner Jackie Navarro and some of the animals on Oprah, The Tonight Show, and elsewhere on the big and small screens.
The five-acre facility hosts camps, field trips, special experiences, and a wide variety of educational programming. Animal experiences in San Diego here are themed around interacting with a particular animal. Options include Meet and Greet a Cheetah (no interaction), Meet and Feed a Bearcat, Cat Training 101, Fennec Foxes and Friends, and more.
You can also book an education program where they come to you. I’ve attended several events and meetings with their animal ambassadors in attendance.
19. SeaWorld San Diego Animal Interactions
Another popular place for animal interactions in San Diego is at SeaWorld through their animal tours and in-water programs. Yes, you can get in the water with a trainer and a beluga whale or dolphins. Or, stay dry and enjoy interacting with a beluga, dolphin, sea lion, or walrus.
You’ll need to book these fun family experiences in advance. The cost is in addition to your SeaWorld San Diego tickets. What is included are the Explorer’s Reef touch pools located near the entrance are included in admission. Kids love touching the bat rays, reef sharks, and more (washing stations are nearby).
20. Bird Watching in San Diego
Did you know that San Diego is home to over 515 species of birds? Some of these stop here during annual migrations down the Pacific Flyway, which passes through San Diego.
Keep an eye out for birds as you sightsee in places like Cabrillo National Monument and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The Living Coast Discovery Center exhibits some of our local birds, but its location in the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is home to over 200 species. Other popular areas for birding include the Tijuana River National Estuariane Reserve and San Elijo Lagoon.
San Diego Audubon Society hosts birding trips at various locations across the county.
Bonus: San Diego Fairy Shrimp
These endangered crustaceans pop up in seasonal vernal pools throughout the county that form after rainstorms. About 7-14 days after the vernal pools appear, tiny and translucent San Diego Fairy Shrimp (Branchinecta sandiegonensis) hatch from eggs or cysts that stay dormant in the ground during dry seasons. The cysts are hearty enough to survive droughts and wildfires.
San Diego Fairy Shrimp only live as long as the vernal pools stay formed. While they’re alive, they provide a valuable food source for reptiles, insects, and migratory birds. Their role in the food chain is part of the reason why great lengths are taken to preserve vernal pools.
You can see some vernal pools in Ramona Grasslands County Preserve, though many across the country are protected and inaccessible to the public. It’s not the easiest of animal encounters in San Diego to enjoy. Perhaps, just keep an eye out for vernal pools when you walk our park trails after it rains. See what types of creatures you can spot — maybe you’ll get lucky and see San Diego Fairy Shrimp.