Choosing which whale watching tour to go out on will be your most difficult decision. There are so many types of companies that call themselves “whale watch tours.”
If seeing whales is your #1 goal then pick a company that guarantees sightings. These companies are dedicated whale watching companies, not ferry services, dinner cruises, or wildlife tours who moonlight as whale watching companies. They are generally more experienced than the rest, and will go the “extra mile” to make it happen for you.
When looking at other websites look for whale sightings reports and statistics from the current and previous seasons. Claims of “90% success rate!” are empty promises unless backed up by real numbers. Reported numbers of whale sightings will show how experienced a company really is and how good they are at getting to the whales. Good tours should also have whale savvy captains, trained naturalists, and whale watch boats that can legally cross the international border with Canada. High quality, on-board sound systems that allow you to easily hear the narration from the naturalist will also add to your experience.
When you book your whale watch don’t be afraid to ask questions about the whales and what the whale watchers have been seeing. Ask specifics — if the sales person can’t quickly tell you where the whales are, or where they were yesterday, they are probably reading off of a script. A good office that is truly into the whale watching experience will be able to answer all of your questions.
The boats leaving the mainland normally run longer tours, on larger, more comfortable boats, for about the same price as out in the San Juan Islands. They also have the advantage when the whales are in the west or north end of their range. If the whales are in the middle of their range the longer tours will get to spend more time watching whales, and experiencing other wildlife along the way. A 4-6 hour trip has a great advantage in that you will get plenty of “whale time.” A trip longer than 7 hours can be grueling for kids, and older folks. These long trips usually mean a slow boat or that there is a schedule stop at a port along the way.
Anacortes is the most popular departure point for the educated consumer and Island Adventures is the oldest and most experienced whale watch company departing from Anacortes. Leaving from a mainland departure location is convenient and you will not have to deal with any of the potential hassles of the Washington State Ferry System.
Another great option to consider when choosing a whale watching tour is with Port Angeles Whale Watch Company. Port Angeles is conveniently located on the Olympic Peninsula, the gateway to the Olympic National Park. This is a must do while visiting the national park and the peninsula!
If you are planning on visiting the San Juan Islands for more than a day and have adequately planned for the ferry schedule (which is often interrupted by mechanical problems due to the aging fleet of Washington State ferries), there are some great companies operating from San Juan Island. Most island-based companies will have a 72-hour cancellation policy, so if you miss the ferry, your money is gone. The San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce recommends that you get in line for the ferry up to 4.5 hours before departure time, but at least 1.5 hours ahead during off-peak departure times (When shopping prices, keep in mind that extra fees will apply for taking the ferry or parking at the ferry terminal if you walk-on. Washington State Ferry prices from Anacortes to Friday Harbor are: Vehicle and driver around $50; passenger around $13; Motorhomes between $70-$20. Parking on the Anacortes side is $10-$15 per day. Prices can, and do, vary depending on the time of year.) An alternative to the ferry worth considering is a short, and pretty, flight on San Juan Air from Anacortes to Friday Harbor.
On San Juan you will do best going out with a company like Western Prince Cruises. Look out for the companies that appear to spend more time advertising than they do on their tours. If you go with a company who has an “administrative” owner, then you are sure to get a scripted, tourist trap type of experience.
Be sure to choose a company whose owner is also an operator (licensed captain)!
In the summertime we think that evening whale watching tours is a fantastic option. Not only do you get all of the joys of spending time out on the beautiful Salish Sea, but you also get to enjoy a magnificent sunset while traveling back to the dock after a wonderful afternoon spent with whales and wildlife. There is no difference in sighting success rate due to the time of day when it comes to viewing whales. Evening tours do generally have fewer people on board and the lighting for photography is incredible.
There are whale watching and wildlife tours available year round in Washington State. The summer months is the high-season due to the sunny weather, kids being out of school, and the most consistent time to view orca whales in the wild. Several species of whales are around year-round or become more common later into the season. For example, in the fall months (September – November) the best place to depart from for humpback whales is Port Angeles. Port Angeles Whale Watch Company runs tours May – November focusing on 5 different kinds of whales throughout there season, but the humpbacks sightings are some of the best in the Pacific come the fall months. Another great option for some people looking to get out on the water in the early spring months (March – May) would be to go out on a gray whale watching tour. For approximately 3 months out of the year, gray whales return to the calm protected waters of Saratoga Passage. Island Adventures offers a 3-hour guaranteed tour departing from Everett; these tours are the best whale watching value in Washington State and are the perfect way to spend a few hours out on the water viewing the migrating gray whales.