Whale watching cruises to the San Juan Islands draw in people from around the world. Choosing the best departure location to go whale watching can be tricky if you are not familiar with travel logistics in Washington State.
This page has been set up to give you an overview of the most popular ports that offer whale-watching tours into the San Juan Islands and the inland sea of Washington State. After reading this you should be able to make an educated decision about which area best suits the whale watching needs of you and your family.
The reality of land based whale watching is that there are some places to see whales from the shore: Washington park in Anacortes or Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island, for example, could be described as two of the best places in the world to view orca whales from shore. What advocates and supporters of land based whale watching don’t talk about, however, is how hard it is to time it just right so that you are standing there when whales swim by. It is truly all about being in the right place at the right time.
It’s a great experience when everything lines up perfectly and you see them. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen that easily. Usually there are hours of waiting involved before you catch a glimpse and when they pass by (in five minutes) it’s over! Out at Lime Kiln (also referred to as “Whale Watch Park” by Friday Harbor Boosters) there is a reinforced misconception that the whales pass by at some predetermined time. Talk to many people out there and they will tell you that the whales go by at “_o’clock” everyday. The scary part is that they actually believe it, as if the whales follow some predetermined schedule set by the San Juan Chamber of Commerce. Make no mistake about it, the whales follow their own schedule. It really is all based on tides, food supply, and their own fancy. In 2008, the salmon counts were much higher in Rosario Strait, just west of Anacortes, than in Haro Strait which is west of San Juan Island — the orca whale sightings were also down 50% in Haro Strait and up in Rosario Strait!
It is always a great idea to go to some of these areas where whales can be seen from shore; they are usually beautiful areas with great views. However, if you really want to see the whales then you need to enter their world. Get on a boat and go whale watching!
The Pacific Whale Watch Association shows whale watching companies departing from as far south as Seattle, up north in Vancouver B.C., out west from Victoria, and from centrally located Anacortes. Although all of the companies in the PWWA are professional, and responsible operators (look for the logo before you book a trip), your decision about where to depart from can greatly affect how much time you spend cruising to the whales, time spent whale watching, and what kind of water you will transit along the way.
The natural choice for most people is to leave from a harbor that is already in “core Orca viewing waters” as defined by the Seattle Aquarium. This eliminates the long boat rides across potentially rough water, and can maximize your time with the whales.
Anacortes is probably the most conveniently located departure point in Washington for whale watching. Located on Fidalgo Island in the eastern San Juan Islands, it is the only San Juan Island that doesn’t require a costly ferry ride to access. This is why it is known as the “Home port of the San Juan Islands”. Anacortes only takes about 90 minutes to drive to from Seattle, and less than an hour from the city of Bellingham. There are no ferry hassles to deal with. Island Adventures is the company to call in Anacortes. Even though they operate close to where the whales are, they run a 4-5 hour trip. This allows enough time to experience a wide variety of wildlife as well as covering the range of the Southern Resident Orca whale families that call the San Juans “home”. If a trip is shorter than 4-5 hours you have to ask yourself, “what happens if the whales a far away?” Any trip longer than 4-5 hours can be hard on kids, and adults. Incidentally, Island Adventures has led the industry in whale sightings for several years. In 2014, Island Adventures recorded seeing whales on a stunning 164 days in a row! Since 2002 (and archived on their daily whale report), Island Adventures has reported seeing whales on 3,427 out of 3,550 tours — that is over a 96% success rate! This, and their professional service, is probably why they are the most popular whale watch company in Washington and have been voted the best whale watching tour in the Pacific Northwest for the past 6 years in a row!
If you choose a tour from San Juan Island (Friday Harbor), or Orcas Island you will be required to schedule a ferry ride, or a plane flight, into your vacation. If you plan on staying in the islands then this may be a good choice for you, but it is important to keep in mind that the ferry lines, between June and September, can be horrendous. You may even miss your tour if you get stuck in one of the frequent 3-4 hour wait times. If you are just looking for a day-trip, and are coming from the mainland, you will experience a long day of travel, a short whale watch, and a lighter wallet. The ferry always fills in the summer months so you will want to arrive at least two hours prior to sailing if you are driving on or will be required to make a reservation potentially weeks in advance. For walk-ons, arrive a minimum of one hour before the scheduled sailing (and hope the ferry isn’t late, again). The tours in the islands are about the same price as mainland whale watching trips, but are shorter in duration. This can limit their ability to even see whales if they are not nearby on the day you go out. When you factor in the cost of the ferry (around $60 for the car, $13/passenger), and parking fees ($10/day), you will find that you get less- and pay more for it. If you do choose to leave from one of these two islands, be sure to go with a company that is less of a “tourist trap” and more dedicated to the whales.
By the way, Orcas Island is not named for the whales. It was named in honor of Don Juan Vincente de Guemes Pacheco Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo Conde de Revilla Gigedo (!!), the patron of a Spanish explorer out here, and viceroy of Mexico.
This beautiful city has some great tours available. The down side is that they often deal with long runs and rough water crossings. If you are already in Vancouver then this may be your best choice for seeing whales.
Another great city, Victoria offers some quality whale watch cruises. In fact, there are more companies operating out of here than anywhere else. Most of the boats are open deck Zodiac-type vessels that can be exciting, but very uncomfortable on those frequent windy days that make for rough water out in front of Victoria Harbor. The average run time is the same as that from Anacortes, but the crossing is very exposed and the boats are smaller. Make sure to choose a style of boat that suits your needs, there are many choices. Ask if the boats have a bathroom on board. Remember, there are many of the smaller, inflatable style vessels that have disclaimers about pregnant women, guests with bad backs, or children are there for a reason. Don’t risk your well being; there are better choices.
Leaving from either of these two cities ensures that you will spend approximately 4 hours traveling outside of what the Seattle Aquarium considers to be “core Orca viewing waters.” So for about half of the whale watch trip that you paid for you won’t even be searching for them. Some of these trips are described as a ferry type service to Friday Harbor (not a dedicated whale watch trip). This is why they do not guarantee sightings. These trips are 8-9 hours long, which can be tough on family groups. Most people would rather spend less time searching for, and more time looking at, whales.
In March and April, however, there are gray whale tours that depart from Everett with Island Adventures. The tours are 3 hours in duration — the gray whales are migrating northward and are very consistent as they return to the water off Everett year after year to feed on ghost shrimp. These tours are a great value and Everett is an easy 30-minute drive north from Seattle. Island Adventure’s boat, The Island Explorer 3, is parked right in front of Anthony’s Restaurant, which makes for a great seafood dinner, après whales.
This city is a departure point that works well for many folks. Just make sure that you pick a whale watching company, and not a ferry service. Bellingham Bay is often the roughest bit of water in the Salish Sea, but the boats that leave from here can handle the waters well. The average distance to the whales is shorter than that of Vancouver, or Seattle and Everett, but longer than of Anacortes.
If you are headed to the Olympic Peninsula, Port Angeles is the premier destination for whale watching. Port Angeles sits on the edge of the Olympic National Park is in prime whale viewing waters — many folks make a weekend out of exploring the outdoors and watching whales! Throughout the whale watching season the chance to view up to 5 kinds of whales is high, but it is the fall out of Port Angeles that gives way to some of the best viewing of humpbacks in the entire Pacific Northwest. Port Angeles Whale Watch Company offers tours May through November and offers some of the most unique views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Victoria, and Race Rocks that many US companies do not get to view because of their location or Coast Guard Certification. Choose this company if you find yourself exploring the Olympic Peninsula.
As you can see, there are many choices out there. With a little bit of looking around you can find the whale watch cruise that best fit you needs. Hopefully this helps shed some light on the subject and makes your decision easier. No matter where you choose to leave from, you will be whale watching in the best place in the world to see orca whales. Good luck, enjoy your trip, and don’t forget to bring extra film!