Looking for Whales

Questions to Ask Every Whale Watch Company

If you are planning to go whale watching in the San Juan Islands then you should know a few questions to ask before you make a booking in order to ensure that you get the type of whale watch experience that you are looking for.

Do you guarantee whale sightings?

If a whale watching company doesn’t offer a guarantee, then you can’t be sure how committed they are to finding whales for you. Be suspicious of companies that do not “put their money where their mouth is.”

Can you legally cross the Canadian border on your whale watching tours, if needed?

The Orca whales don’t recognize borders, but our law enforcement does. What happens if the whales are in Canadian waters on the day of your tour?

In order to legally cross the international border, captains need to have a special rating on their licenses. It is called a STCW endorsement (Safety Training and Certified Watchkeeping), and very few seasonal captains have it. This is one of those Coast Guard requirements that some companies would rather sweep under the rug. But it is important, especially if something should happen out on the water. Protect yourself.

Do you post your sightings record from past years online?

Many companies will boast about their success rate with hard to prove, general statistics (“Over 90%,” etc). Well, if that is true, then why don’t more companies guarantee their whale watching tours? If they are not willing to post verifiable numbers of successful trips, then you can be sure that they may not be as successful as their marketing implies. Island Adventures, in Anacortes, has been posting their success rate for years.

Am I speaking directly to the whale watch company, or to a booking agent?

This can be an important question. Why pay extra for going through a middleman when there are so many easily accessible companies? These middlemen can’t possibly be able to answer your questions, they are not whale watchers. Go with a company that answers their own phones.

How long have you been in the whale watching business, under current ownership?

How long these guys have been around can directly correlate with how successful they will be in finding you some whales. Older companies have refined their tours and can produce a much more rewarding experience.

Do you need to take a ferry to your location? How much does it cost? Where do I park? How early should we get in line for the ferry? When can I expect to get back?

Depending on how much time that you want to spend sitting in a hot parking lot waiting for a ferry, how much money you want to spend on “extra charges,” and how much frustration you can deal with, this may be your most crucial question. The ferry to the San Juan Islands, in the peak summer months, can be a character-building experience. Be prepared.

Does your vessel have a full walk-around lower deck, large, open bow area, protected upper viewing deck, and comfortable in almost any weather? How about enough rail space for all of the guests at once?

Go to our Picking a Boat page for more information. All of these features are important for a great whale watching experience.

Does your vessel have food service, heated cabins, more than one restroom?

If you are into comfort then this is a good one to ask.

Do you have free binocular use, wildlife viewing guides, research quality hydro phone, take home route maps, and more than one naturalist onboard?

Binoculars are great for both watching whales, and for other sorts of wildlife viewing. Wildlife viewing guides are informative and educational — they’re also a great keepsake for memories of your tour. Hydrophones are essential, any company that doesn’t use them is hardly worth the name “whale watcher.” A naturalist is also an essential component of a good whale watch program, two or more is even better!

Does your company give back to the environment by promoting salmon enhancement groups and supporting the scientific community?

Do you really want to go with someone who doesn’t give back?