Looking for Whales

Whales Around the San Juan Islands and the Salish Sea


The local Resident orcas whales are what the region is most famous for. There are three of these Resident pods, or families, of whales: J-pod, K-pod, and L-pod. There are 77 individual whales that make up these three pods of whales. The Center for Whale Research began studying these animals 30+ years ago and gives each individual whale a name and number. Each whale has a gray/white area just behind the dorsal fin known as a saddle patch; these patches are unique to each whale, just like a fingerprint on a human. This is how the whales are identified.

Although these whales are called Residents, they do not live here year round. They are often times out chasing salmon (their favorite type of food) and can be found off the west coast of Vancouver Island, the west coast of Washington, and have even been documented as far south as California! They tend to be the most constantly seen in the San Juans and Salish Sea area June – September.

The Transient killer whales are also seen in the Salish Sea. These orcas are known for their hunting; unlike the Resident orcas, the Transients feed on other marine mammals. Having the opportunity to watch these animals hunt is a real treat and is a little like Discovery Channel unplugged.

Minke Whales

Commonly encountered when the boats head out to the more open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales (this is like referring to a “small” elephant, they are still big) and feed on small baitfish. Watching the lunge out of the water as they scoop up their food can be a dramatic and exciting event.

Gray Whales

The Gray whales that we see here are on their annual migration north from Baja, Mexico to Alaska. They stop to feed in the calm, protected waters of Saratoga Passage, and the waterways around Everett, for about 3 months every spring. Cascadia Research has been documenting the return of these gentle giants for many years and has them identified with a number (and some even have “human” names like Patch and Little Patch!).


Humpbacks used to be a rare occurrence around the Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands, but these days the population of the North Pacific Humpback whales has increased to the point that they are now often seen throughout the waters of Washington and Canadian year round. They do, however, still seem to be the most consistent and numerous in the fall months.