Seeing whales in the wild does not have to be complicated. If you find the right time and place it can be as simple as deciding whether to observe from dry land or from the water! In the San Juan Islands, I have done both and have had success with both.
Hands Down – my favorite place to whale watch is from the beautiful San Juan Islands, off the Washington coast in the Pacific Northwest. These small unassuming islands are world famous for their local orcas. During our weeklong stay in September of 2018, every plan we made revolved around spotting wild orcas. We booked a guided boat tour, a day long sea kayaking excursion, mapped the best shorelines to watch from, and even stayed at a rental house with a private hot tub for whale watching. As luck would have it, we saw orcas on a couple of different occasions. Here are my tips for seeing wild orcas from San Juan Island, all while supporting ethical whale watching practices.
Guided Whale Watching Tours:
My first recommendation for selecting a whale watching tour is DO YOUR RESEARCH. Not all guides have the whales’ best interest in mind. Find a company that prioritizes ecotourism practices that protect whales first over sales and profits. This is true far beyond whale watching- always do your research when booking wildlife viewing excursions. For the Pacific Northwest, I recommend using Pacific Whale Watch Association as a resource. I dove into their site and truly appreciated the detail they put into their whale watching guidelines. Pacific Whale Watch Association members are committed to ecotourism that supports research, education, and responsible wildlife viewing. Each of their member operators provide unique experiences; some tours have larger vessels with more amenities, while others offer zodiacs with an exciting adrenaline pumping experience. There are pros and cons to all options. For us, I wanted to find a guided tour that had a small intimate boat, followed practices that exceeded the whale watching guidelines, and actively supported the protection of orcas.
I am still pleased with the company we booked, Spirit of Orca. With the help of Ken, the captain and certified naturalist, we observed over thirty orcas responsibly. We nearly had the boat to ourselves, just one other couple toured with us for the three-hour long excursion. In fact, they were regulars, having gone out with Ken on multiple occasions, all the way from Nebraska to see orcas. Ken’s boat, appropriately named, The Spirit of Orca, was the perfect size at just 26 feet in length. Powerful enough to take us quickly to where the whales were, yet small and intimate enough for a near private experience.
What originally caught my attention from Spirit of Orca was their pride in having some of the most conservative viewing guidelines in the world. It was clear their top priority was the well-being and safety of the whales. Ken was skilled at identifying members from the three southern resident pods – J, K, and L. But what really surprised me from our whale watching experience was being with a captain that so obviously loved his work. Ken was in awe of each whale we spotted, his passion as contagious. With every action he made his love for whales became more and more clear; from cutting the engine off every chance he had, to photographing the orcas right along with us. It was easy to tell that Ken thoroughly enjoys his work, which makes the guest experience that much more extraordinary. Though our three hours on The Spirit of Orca felt too short, we were able to witness some amazing whale behaviors in the company of Ken.
When we signed up to sea kayak, I had no idea that we would end up with a private guided experience. Since we were visiting during the shoulder season of September, the number of tourists on the islands had begun to take its seasonal dip. We selected the 5-hour “Orca Search by Kayak” excursion through San Juan Outfitters, based in Roche Harbor. This tour was recommended as the best option for paddlers looking for a little more time on the water (more than a typical 3-hour tour), meaning more chances to see marine life. After getting our introduction from our guide Dominque, and figuring out what a kayak spray skirt is, we were ready to dip into the water. Dominque had his own kayak, while Lance and I were in a tandem together. Once again, the off season played to our advantage, there were hardly any other boats or paddlers out on the water. Once we left Roche Harbor, we paddled our way towards the Haro Strait. This body of water separates British Columbia, Canada from the San Juan Islands; and is known as a marine highway for wildlife of all kinds. Though we never saw any orcas while kayaking, we did spot plenty of adorable harbor seals dotting the rocky coast. Seeing whales would have been unreal, we were just so happy to be out on the water, connecting to the Pacific surf.
Whale Watching from Shore:
Of course, solid ground does not come to mind when you think of whale watching, but it should! The most ethical and least invasive way to watch marine life is from dry land. In fact, I have seen numerous whales from shore, and many claim San Juan Island is the world’s best place to view whales from land. Honestly, I must agree.
Our best luck for seeing whales from shore came from South Beach, just a short drive outside of Friday Harbor. The first thing you will notice about South Beach, it’s littered with massive amounts of driftwood that roll in and out with the tide. We found the perfect log to kick up our feet and watch the coastline for dorsal fins. Only two sips into my chai tea and I noticed a bit of commotion from the few other beach goers- they had spotted whales! A small transient pod was swimming by a short distance from shore. So glad I had our binoculars, they made all the difference in enjoying this sighting. Our eyes were glued to their movements as we watched for their blowhole spray with each breath.
If you are fortunate enough to step foot on San Juan Island, then you better include a stop at Lime Kiln State Park. Located on the western coast of the island, this little State Park is world renown. I remember the videos we watched on YouTube from outrageous whale sightings from Lime Kiln, I was dying to go! When we finally made our last turn into the parking lot, I could not stumble out of the car fast enough and zip down the dirt trail to lay eyes on the famous view. We spent hours with camera and binoculars in hand just scanning the water. Over the course of just one morning we spotted a dozen harbor seals bobbing their puppy-like faces up out of the water, and at least thirty harbor porpoises that jetted by. We stopped at Lime Kiln a total of three different times- sunrise, midday, and sunset. Even without any success in spotting orcas at Lime Kiln, our time was well spent enjoying the rugged costal views this park has to offer.
Whale Watching from a Hot Tub:
When I said every plan we made on San Juan Island revolved around spotting wild orcas – I was dead serious. We were whale watching our entire trip, especially since our rental house doubled as a shoreside lookout point. Some of my favorite memories from San Juan were from when we dipped into our private hot tub and whale watched from the warm water.
My hope is that these tips for seeing wild orcas in the San Juans helps to empower you to support ethical whale watching practices. Be sure to check out the following links for my recommendations in the area:
Guided Whale Watching Tour: Spirit of Orca
Sea Kayaking Excursion: San Juan Outfitters
Other Ethical Whale Watching Opportunities: Pacific Whale Watch Association
What to see and do in Friday Harbor: Best Small Town in America