Meet James Saffer

SEAL Tours Captain

A city like San Diego is best enjoyed by both land and sea. Conveniently, locals and visitors can take an amphibious tour that covers land and sea in the same vehicle, so passengers never have to leave their seat. Capt. James Saffer operates one of the vehicles for San Diego SEAL Tours, so he’s seen and done some interesting things over his 14 years with the company. While he’s been a licensed captain since 1977 — he holds a 500-ton Master Upon Oceans license — and has taken passengers on roughly 9,000 SEAL tours, he still sees things that impress him on San Diego Bay.

San Diego SEAL Tours doesn’t use the commonly known duck boats, which were built for combat and retrofitted for tourism. Saffer, who is also the company’s operations manager, and the other captains operate eight vessels, including Hydra Terra vehicles, which are purpose built for tourism. Visit for the full rundown on the differences between duck boats and Hydra Terra.

Sea: What’s the toughest part about navigating an amphibious vehicle?
Saffer: The toughest part about navigating an amphibious vehicle is when you’re driving on land through traffic, which at times can become very challenging. On the water the amphibious vehicle handles pretty much like any other boat. It is slow, at five knots, because of all the undercarriage that goes with us — the chassis, the wheels, the bumpers and engine compartment. It is a very stable vessel; all of that undercarriage gives our boat a low center of gravity, which reduces the rocking motion. Getting motion sickness on our boats is pretty much nonexistent. With the marine outdrive on the back of our vessel, it is very maneuverable.

What do you wish recreational boaters knew about the vessels?
I wish they knew our vessels are pretty heavy and that it takes some space to stop in the water, so you want to stay alert and please do not cut too close in front of our vessel while we are underway.

What parts of San Diego does the tour cover?
Our SEAL tours depart from both Seaport Village and from the Embarcadero. As we leave the downtown area of San Diego, we travel along the waterfront on North Harbor Drive past our airport toward the community of Point Loma. We head onto Shelter Island and enter the bay at the boat launch ramp. We point out and talk about dozens of points of interest during the road portion of the tour and then spend about an hour navigating the waters of San Diego Bay. We head toward the entrance of the bay and view dozens of points of interest along the way. The tour is fully narrated by our onboard guide/mate.

What is your favorite part of the tour?
Being on the water and enjoying the great views of the city and watching our passengers enjoy doing something different. I think this is our passengers’ favorite portion of the tour. They enjoy the transition going into and out of the water. This they cannot do with their family car. They can go in the water with their car, but they probably will not make it back out.

What is the best part about boating in San Diego?
The best part of boating in San Diego is that it is in San Diego — a boater’s paradise with lots of sunshine, great weather, and usually calm conditions on the water. Whether you like to sail, fish, cruise or do other watersports, San Diego is great.

What kind of animals can visitors expect to see?
They can expect to see a variety of sea birds, such as pelicans, western gulls, California gulls, Hermann gulls, cormorants, terns and a variety of seasonal water fowl during the winter months. We also get close-up viewing of local sea lion families that inhabit our bay on the bait receivers and buoys. Most days we can see from a dozen to as many as two hundred. We do see from time to time harbor seals and pods of bottlenose dolphins and harbor porpoises. Once in a while a gray whale will venture into the bay and linger a few days.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen during a tour?
I have seen many interesting things during our tours, including when a Navy jet overshot the runway at the North Island naval air station and ended up in the bay. My favorite and most memorable sight is the birth of baby sea lions. I have also seen a young gray whale calf in the bay.