The San Juan Islands are one of the best places in the world to see orca whales in the wild. The waters surrounding the islands are home base to several orca family groups, most notably the salmon-eating “Southern Resident” J, K and L pods as well as marine mammal-eating “Transient” orcas. Visitors can also see humpbacks, minkes and the occasional gray whale. Other marine animals such as Steller sea lions, harbor seals and porpoise also call the San Juan Islands home.
Here are a few different ways you can experience the magic of these majestic creatures.
1. Whale watching boat tours
A number of tours operate year-round from the San Juan Islands; they are pros at finding likely locations for whale watching due to their spotting network. Boats have a certified naturalist or trained captain on board to point out wildlife and describe their behaviors. Whether you prefer a private tour for six or an 80-passenger vessel, there’s a tour for you. You can see a nice list of options here.
2. Kayak tours
If you want a more active experience, a kayaking tour is an unforgettable way to explore the coastline. Many trips are designed around places known as great vantage points for whale watching. There’s something magical about paddling along the water and experiencing the surprise and awe of a whale sighting. Tim Thomsen, with San Juan Kayak Expeditions says, “Sea kayaking is for people who like to learn new things, see new things and get outdoors.”
3. Watch from the shore
Lime Kiln Point State Park, also known as Whale Watch Park, is renowned as one of the best places in the world for whale watching from land. Orcas, humpback and minke whales pass by year round, with peak timing for iconic resident orcas depending on salmon runs. The Interpretive Center is a great place to learn about transient orcas as well as the Southern Resident killer whales.
4. Go solo
If you’ll be piloting a chartered boat yourself or embarking on a self-guided kayaking adventure in hopes of finding whales, it’s of paramount importance that you adhere to the Be Whale Wise guidelines. Observing marine animals is thrilling, but that fun shouldn’t come at a cost to the whales. The fragility of their ecosystems means that visitors have to be especially careful.
Key tenets of being whale (and wildlife) wise include:
- Keeping your vessel AT LEAST 200 yards away from any whale you see, and at least 100 yards from any other marine mammal or bird on water or on land
- Being quiet and cautious to avoid disturbing the animals
- Exhibiting caution and slowing down when approaching or departing from wildlife viewing
- Staying out of the way of animals’ traveling trajectory
- Never touching or feeding the animals
If the movement of animals makes it so that your vessel is not compliant with the 200 yards rule, put your engine in neutral or stop paddling to allow the animals to pass. Kayakers in particular can turn to KELP, the Kayak Education and Leadership Program, for specific guidelines.
5. Get whale-educated
Beyond watching whales, there are tons of other activities for whale enthusiasts in the San Juan Islands. Visit The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor to learn about the whales of the Pacific Northwest and the natural history of marine mammals, see a family tree of the Southern Resident orcas, check out real whale skeletons and understand the impact plastic has had on marine environments.
You can even adopt a whale, with proceeds of the program supporting stewardship of the Southern Resident orcas and the entire Salish Sea ecosystem. Consider following The Whale Trail, a collection of whale-focused recommendations for visitors to the San Juan Islands. Whales follow the salmon runs, so although whale sightings are never guaranteed, you’re most likely to see them in the wild along these routes.
Ready to have a whale of a time? Learn more and plan your visit at visitsanjuans.com.