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Orca watching in the San Juan Islands

A boat in Deception Pass near Whidbey Island
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There are three resident pods of orca whales in Puget Sound, known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), with approximately 87 whales total. The SRKW are in the San Juan Islands traditionally from mid-April to the beginning of October, favoring the waters on the west side of San Juan Island where the salmon are plentiful.

Due to their proximity, the San Juan Islands are a fantastic place to get an up-close look at orcas in the wild. If you are lucky, you can spot the orcas from land, but your best bet is to sign up for a tour with one of the many tour boat operators in the islands.

If you’re staying on Lopez Island, Barlow Bay Charters offers personalized, custom boat charters to all islands, wildlife tours, exploring, sightseeing and photo tours. They can accommodate private tours up to six passengers.

From Anacortes, Island Adventures offers whale watching tours which take approximately 5-6 hours and guarantee whale sightings. In addition to spotting orcas, they also offer tours to see gray whales in the Spring and humpback whales in the Fall. Private charters are available March-December. New in 2011, they are offering private tours on their new yacht, the Halcyon, which can accommodate day tours of 6, or overnight for 4 passengers.

From Orcas Island, Orcas Island Eclipse Charters offers tours to see orcas, Minke whales, harbor seals, Dall’s and harbor porpoise, bald eagles, ospreys, cormorants, great blue herons, sea lions, elephant seals and gray whales.

San Juan Island has the most options for whale watching enthusiasts. San Juan Safaris can accommodate private charters or groups, and even has a same-day return flight package from Seattle in partnership with Kenmore Air. San Juan Safaris is guided by an eco-tourist philosophy of “respectful interaction with wildlife” and seeks to educate their passengers about environmental concerns and help them truly connect with wildlife. Although based on San Juan Island, they also offer water taxi service from Friday Harbor to Lopez Island, Orcas Island, Stuart Island, Shaw Island, Anacortes, Canada, and the outer islands. 

If you’re with a larger group, two companies offer private tours on larger boats: Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours and San Juan Excursions.


Another option is San Juan Cruises in Bellingham. They offer 8-hour day cruises as well as evening dinner cruises, with as your guide a very knowledgeable captain who can tell you all about the wildlife in the San Juan waters as well as about the geology and history of the area.


See also:

Whale watching in British Columbia, Canada