Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands

Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands
An Orca whale off the coast of the San Juan Islands. Photo by Jim Maya.

It’s not every day you encounter a pod of whales or a bald eagle soaring above. But from about mid-April through mid October, and even year round, you can usually find a plethora of wildlife and whales in western Washington waters. Named as one of the 10 best whale watching destinations in the world, the San Juan Islands are known around the globe as THE place to spot these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. With the San Juans so easily accessible, this one-of-a-kind experience is at your fingertips.

There are several ways to get to the islands, and in fact, getting there is half the fun! Take a Washington State ferry from Anacortes, fly from Seattle in a Kenmore Air seaplane, grab a flight from Boeing Field, or hop on the seasonal Victoria Clipper from Seattle’s waterfront or a seasonal passenger ferry from Bellingham or Port Townsend. In as little as 30 minutes you’ll be in the San Juans, ready to begin your whale and wildlife-watching journey. 

Harbor seals, sea lions and seabirds are abundant throughout the San Juan Islands, and if you’re a fan of kayaking or walking the docks, you may get an up close look at a purple starfish, a spiny sea star or an anemone. Bird watchers will get a kick out of the more than 300-recorded species of birds in the islands, including the highest concentration of nesting bald eagles in the state. 
 
While all of the wildlife around the San Juans is fascinating, many people travel to the islands to specifically go whale watching. Most of the whales seen around the area are orcas, and are either Southern Residents -- 80 whales which make up three local pods, which feed on salmon -- or “transients” which are mammal hunters. Because of the proximity to these large, sea-based neighbors, the San Juan Islands have a variety of whale & wildlife tour operators to choose from. Most run trips from mid April through mid October, and a few offer trips year round due to the chance of seeing whales any time of year.
 
Orcas aren’t the only species of whales you’re likely to see while out on a tour. Gray, minke and humpback whales have also been spotted, along with harbor seals, porpoises, sea lions, otters, dolphins, bald eagles, and countless seabirds. Some tours not only give you the opportunity to see these breathtaking animals, but hear them as well. Hydrophones from the boats pick up the eerily beautiful whale calls these animals use to communicate.
 
If you choose to head out in your own boat, it’s important to stick to the state and federal whale watching guidelines – just like the tours do – of staying 200 yards away. This allows the whales’ normal activities to continue without interruption. The “Southern Residents” are endangered, and as such there is a strong local connection and culture of respect for the whales.
 
If whale watching from a boat isn’t up your alley, you can try your luck at shore-based whale watching at Whale Watch Park(Lime Kiln Point State Park) on the west side of San Juan Island, or check out the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.