Whale watching in the San Juan IslandsWhale Watching in Washington State

This website was created to help potential whale watchers make an educated choice regarding their next whale watching vacation or day trip in Washington State and the San Juan Islands. These days there are many choices of whale watch boats and whale watching companies in the Puget Sound region. It is important that the consumers know a little about the industry in order to make a decision that works for them and their families.

Where is the best place to see whales in Washington?

Researchers, eco-travelers, and serious whale watchers agree that the water around the San Juan Islands is the best place in the world to view Orca Whales in the wild..
Anacortes is located on the east side of the San Juan Islands on Fidalgo Island and is a natural place to join a whale watch trip.
Easily accessed from either Seattle, or Vancouver BC, this is the only San Juan Island that has no ferry hassles to deal with in order to access it. You can drive right to it over one of two bridges. We have tried other places and this is our favorite by a wide margin. Follow the link to Whale Watch Departure Locations for more!

The whole area lies in the "rain shadow" of the Olympic Mountains. Consequently, the weather is much drier and sunnier than elsewhere in Western Washington. The average rainfall is less than 25 inches per year. The Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island protect this beautiful archipelago from the ravages of the Pacific Ocean and the water is generally very calm. This adds to the appeal of whale watching out here, especially if you've experienced the stomach churning whale watch trips off of the coast of New England.

There are 172 named islands in the San Juans. They are surrounded by deep, cold waters that support an incredible variety of wildlife all year long. The best whale watch companies design their trips so that people spend a lot of quality time with the whales and also see a long list of the other creatures that call this place home. If you are not given the opportunity to experience more than just whales, you are not getting the most "bang for your buck."

A quick overview of the whales around the San Juan Islands

Orca Whales

  • The local Resident Orca whales are what the region is most famous for. There are three resident pods, or families, of orcas that call the San Juan Islands home. About 90 individuals are in J-pod, K-pod, and L-pod. The Center for Whale Research began studying these animals 30 years ago and gives each individual a name and number. These professional researchers can identify the whales at a glance and spend enough time with them to consider them friends. What makes whale watching out here so fun is the very social nature of these particular whales. It is not uncommon to have whales swim very near the boats. Photographers love the them because they tend to breach (jump out of the water) more than other whale populations. Even the amateur with a disposable camera is often rewarded with an incredible shot.
  • There is another type of Orca out here as well. The Transient Orca population regularly patrols the waters around the San Juan Islands looking for prey. Unlike the Resident whales who eat only fish, the Transients are seeking out warm-blooded marine mammals. Coming upon a group of these killer whales in the process of making a kill is like watching the Discovery Channel unplugged.

Minke Whales

  • Orca whales are only one of the whale species that can be enjoyed in Washington. Minke Whales are commonly encountered when the boats head out to the more open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Minkes are the smallest of the baleen whales (this is like referring to a "small" elephant, they are still big), and feed on small baitfish in the water column. Watching them lunge out of the water as they scoop up their food is a dramatic event. Check out the photo, 3rd from the left, below.

Gray Whales

  • Gray Whales migrate from Baja, Mexico to Alaska each year and visit the islands in the spring. Often they arrive in March and stay until May, but over the last three years there have been Gray whales staying in the San Juan Islands all summer long.

Humpback Whales

Humpback Whales used to be a rarity in the San Juans. These days the population of North Pacific Humpback Whales has increased to the point that they are now often seen in Washington and Canadian waters. Usually they are encountered predominately in the late summer, but they have been seen in all of the summer months. Humpbacks (AKA "the Big Guys") in the area can put on an amazing show, as can be seen on the filmstrip below. Two big guys breaching together!

How do I know who the best companies are?

The best companies will guarantee whale sightings in the San Juan Islands. This shows their confidence in being able to give you what you paid for. If they aren't guaranteeing success then they may be hiding something. You will find that nearly every company will boast of high sucess rates in finding whales, but very few will actually post their record in real numbers, and fewer still will post daily sightings. Go with a company that is not hiding being fuzzy statistics.

Island Adventures in Anacortes posts a record breaking 235 successful whale watch trips....in a row, in 2005, and 258 out of 264 in 2008! They also post a daily whale report that talks about the trips and what was encountered. This is a company that backs up their claims with facts. And they have an ironclad guarantee.

Look around, and ask a lot of questions, before choosing a whale watching company. Your choice could make the difference between a disappointment, and an unforgettable experience. The website for thePacific Whale Watch Association is a great place to begin.

Happy Whale Watching!

Bart Rulon Photography