Whale watching in Washington’s San Juan Islands

san juan islands whale watching

The one hundred and twenty-eight named San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington provide one of the best venues in America for orca whale watching. Every year three pods of orcas totaling up to 85 whales return to the Islands where they travel up to 100 miles a day to feed on salmon. Add to that some transient orcas that come to the islands to take harbor seals and the chances of orca sightings while San Juan Islands whale watching between April and October are good.

San Juan Kayak Expeditions owner Tim Thomsen, the first outfitter to conduct sea kayaking and whale watching trips in the San Juan Islands in the late 70’s and the person who has paddled more miles in the San Juan Islands than any man alive, says this about the experience of encountering an orca whale from the seat of a kayak. “I’ve had them come up within inches of my kayak. You can hear them breath. It’s a huge breath that has a metallic ring to it exploding from their blowhole behind their forehead (to hear an orca breath, Click Here) To be sitting in a sea kayak with orca whales weighing maybe ten tons – the males maybe thirty feet long – going by in the wild is one of the most spectacular and inspiring things you can ever do.”

The outfitters below provide orca whale watching experiences from sea kayaks, motorized boats or plane. Is there any guarantee that you will see an orca on one of these whale watching excursions? No. All of these outfitters make every effort to encounter orcas in the islands. They all know that seeing an orca surface is the experience of a lifetime for most of their customers, but it is never a certainty. All trips, however, do see plenty of other wildlife, including sea lions, harbor seals, river otters, bald eagles, porpoise, humpback or minke whales, along with one of the most spectacular natural environments in America.

The business that Tim Thomsen started has grown tremendously in popularity, Now nature-loving outdoors people from all over the world travel to the San Juan Islands in search of the orca experience. Fourteen professional outfitters and guides provide these visitors with whale watching tours that last from a half-day to five days.  Here’s a list of them (in alphabetical order) with brief summaries of the different types of tours they provide. The links go to the outfitters’ websites.

Anacortes Kayak Tours

Located in Anacortes the location of the ferry to San Juan Islands and other San Juan islands Anacortes Kayak Tours provides half-day, full-day trips and multi-day sea kayaking and whale watching in the San Juan Islands. Trips which depart from Anacortes do not require a ferry ride. Other trips depart from Roche Harbor Resort on San Juan Island. The outfitter also provides multi-day trips ranging from 2 to 5-days on which they furnish all gear and food. On all multi-day trips the outfitter maintains a ratio of not more than six guests per guide.

Crystal Seas Kayaking

Hosting kayakers, campers and bikers in the San Juan Islands since 1993, Crystal Seas Kayaking has a wide array of tours to fit any adventurer and their budget.  Open from mid-March through mid-October, they offer guided half-day, full-day, sunset and multi-day kayaking, biking and camping trips.  Wildlife is abundant in the sea and on land with bald eagles, seals, Dall’s porpoises, orca whales, blue herons likely to be spotted and the fauna on the shoreline of the islands is spectacular.  Miles of beaches make it a great place to relax for a few hours or camp overnight.

Deer Harbor Charters

A family owned and operated business, Deer Harbor Charters has been providing whale watching excursion in Washington’s San Juan Islands since 1988. The outfitter operates two whale watching boats from Orcas Island, with wildlife biologists or naturalists teaching guests about whale behavior and detailing the area’s unique ecosystem and natural history. A third boat provides guided day trip tours to the state parks of Sucia and Matia Islands. For those interested in sailing among the islands, the outfitter offers day sails on a 43-foot wooden sloop. Private, customized tours can also be arranged.

Discovery Sea Kayaks

Located in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island Discovery Sea Kayaks provides half-day, full-day and multi-day sea kayaking and whale watching tours in the San Juan Islands. Half-day tours depart from a small pocket beach on San Juan Island and follow a route known for orca sightings. The kayaks traverse deep kelp beds and rocky coastline outcrops past the iconic Lime Kiln Lighthouse. Full-day tours allow boaters to spend more time with guides learning about the area’s wildlife and history. Three and five-day day kayak expeditions travel among the San Juan Islands to scenic camping areas. All equipment and food is provided and outfitters do all the food preparation and clean-up. The Discovery Kayaks store front is located at 260 Spring Street, the main street of Friday Harbor, an easy walk from the ferry.

Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters

Located in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters has been guiding whale watching excursions in the area since 1997. The outfitter specializes in seeking out pods of orca whales, and the naturalist guide educates passengers on their biology and behavior. Tours are conducted on a 30-foot catamaran that provides a smooth ride and stable platform for up to six passengers. The boat’s speedy twin 150-H.P. four-stroke engines give it a wide range for seeking out whales and other wildlife, increasing the likelihood of sightings.

Mystic Sea Charters

Mystic Sea Charters is headquartered in Old Town Anacortes. Mystic Sea is a classic 100-foot charter boat with a heated and enclosed deck, onboard food service, and excellent inside and outside viewing spaces, including 150 feet of rail space. The boat’s home port is Anacortes, and other ports of call include Langley, Seattle, Everett, Whidbey Island, La Conner, Deception Pass, San Juan Island, Lopez Island, Orcas Island, Bellingham, and Blaine. The outfitter offers whale watching for gray, orca, humpback, and minke whales.

North Shore Charters

North Shore Charters has been operating fishing, whale watching, and sightseeing tours of the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest since 2000. The outfitter offers offshore fishing excursions that target seasonal fish. Guests may catch chinook, king, or sockeye salmon, halibut, ling and rock cod, or black sea bass depending on the time of year. They also provide a number of sightseeing boat tours of the islands, including a wildlife tour of local marine parks and historic lighthouses, a multi-island tour, and their self-professed favorite – a sunset cruise. Private whale watching tours are also available

Outdoor Odysseys

Friday Harbor-based Outdoor Odysseys has been guiding kayak expeditions through the San Juan Islands for almost 30 years. The outfitter offers half- to four-day kayaking tours that incorporate whale watching, hiking, wildlife viewing and camping as key components of the expedition. Outdoor Odysseys guides are trained naturalists who impart their knowledge about the region’s wildlife and natural history to their guests. The outfitter can customize expeditions for families and small groups, and offers a 12-day natural history/marine biology kayaking course.

San Juan Excursions

San Juan Excursions provides whale/wildlife watching tours of Washington’s San Juan Islands aboard the 65-foot Odyssey, a 1941 former U.S. Navy search and rescue vessel converted to a touring yacht. Guests board the Odyssey in Friday Harbor and set sail into the San Juans in search of orca whales, sea lions, gray whales, and great blue herons. Every passenger has a good viewpoint from the boat’s multi-level wrap-around viewing decks. The outfitter offers a free trip to guests if they don’t see orcas on the day of their trip.

San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours

San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours is headquartered in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, and operates offshore of the San Juan Islands. The Natsilane, a 30-foot Albin Fast Express Cruiser, is named after a native orca whale legend. The boat has a restroom, heated cabin, and inside and outside seating. Three-hour whale watching tours leave from the Spring Street Landing next to the Washington State Ferry Terminal. Cruises are limited to six passengers. Tours are once daily fall, winter, and spring, and twice daily during summer.

San Juan Kayak Expeditions

Founded in 1980, San Juan Kayak Expeditions was the first sea kayaking outfitter in the San Juan Islands and a highly respected company that provides half-day to 5 day excursions of the area.  Spotting Orca whales are usually the highlight of any tour but a number of other animals that can be seen include bald eagles, sea and river otters, sea lions, harbor seals and porpoises.  A wide variety of migratory birds such as scoters, loons, ducks and mergansers also call this home.  A new experience also available for the more skilled paddler is kayak sailing.

San Juan Safaris

Departing from charming Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, San Juan Safaris takes guests out into Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for a chance to see wild orca whales in their natural habitats. Each whale watching boat tour lasts approximately 3 hours, and cruises the waters home to more than 80 resident migratory orcas who call the area home from April to October each year. Scenic seaplane connector packages are also available, connecting Seattle with Friday Harbor via a narrated air tour prior to your whale watching tour.

Sea Quest Expeditions

With locations in the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound and Prince William Sound, Sea Quest Expeditions leads guided kayaking tours of the waters and wildlife of coastal Washington and southern Alaska. Outings depart from Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands, Seattle in Puget Sound and Petersburg in Alaska. Highlights include opportunities to get up-close with migrating humpbacks and resident pods of orcas who call the waters home each year. Birding tours in the Cascade Mountains and on the San Juan Islands are also available.

Shearwater Adventures

Located in Eastsound, Washington, on Orcas Island, Shearwater Adventures has been providing kayak tours of the San Juan Islands for more than 30 years. The outfitter offers daily scheduled three-hour tours of Orcas Island, day kayaking trips to Sucia Island, and specialized trips such as Moonlight tours, sunset trips, and springtime island wildflower tours. During the tours naturalist guides describe the natural history and ecology of the islands, and detail animal biology and behavior. The outfitter also offers basic introductory instruction for novice kayakers.

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About Brown's Guide 195 Articles
Brown’s Guides is a website about the top outdoor experiences in America and about the professional outfitters and guides who know them best. BG selects guides and outfitters located in or in close proximity to the Natural Areas they provide activities in. These outfitters know the areas and care about protecting and preserving them in a way that outfitters based in other states never can. Hiking, biking, sea kayaking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and over 100 other outdoor activities are indexed on the site. BG has been doing this type of thing since 1972 in books, magazines, maps and on the Internet.

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