Whale watching in the San Juan Islands

Just a short seaplane or ferry ride away from Anacortes are the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Whether or not you want to go killer whale watching, these islands are certainly still worth a visit, but it’s mainly the ocras that brought me here. The San Juan Islands are supposed to be one of the best places in the world to spot killer whales in the wild, and I was going to be there at the beginning of whale watching season.

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You have a couple options when it comes to whale watching: you can do a kayak tour or a boat. Unless you’re doing the longer kayaking trips, (there are some that are five hours long, or even overnight), it’s rare that you’ll see any killer whales. However, there are still a lot of other things to see that you’d miss when you’re on a fast boat. I decided to start off with the 3-hour tour with hopes of seeing killer whales, but being okay with it if we didn’t because we were doing the boat the next day.


We were a small group (maybe six people), and we were led by two guides, Alex and Chris, who were hilarious and had a lot of entertaining stories for us along the way. We were doing the sunset tour, and sunsets are supposed to be amazing in the San Juan Islands. Unfortunately, it was extremely cloudy that day so we didn’t get to see a sunset and actually had to head back early because they didn’t want us to be kayaking back in the dark.



Apparently, we did come across a pod of killer whales, but I can’t confirm this because it was so far away that I didn’t see anything. There was a seal right near our kayaks that kept popping his head up to look at us as we tried to get a better look at the whales.

Aside from the whales, we got to see and pet a starfish. Even though we didn’t see much on this particular outing, the scenery was still beautiful. If you’re going to do a kayak tour, I’d do the sunset one because as long as it isn’t super cloudy, you’re in for a treat.  The next day, we did catch the sunset as we were leaving and it was amazing.

Some tips: bring binoculars. Wear waterproof gloves or mitts because the water is freezing. Don’t wear any cotton. At all. I was wearing a cotton sweater and even though I still had two other waterproof jackets on top of that, it still managed to somehow get wet (and stay wet, as cotton tends to do) and it was not very pleasant. They recommend wearing sport sandals, but unless you’re used to frigid water, I’d recommend rain boots. Finally, you’ll want to wear Dri-Fit clothing that won’t stay wet (you’re bound to get just a little wet) and that will keep you warm. I’ve linked to some awesome products on Amazon, so check them out if you’re planning an upcoming kayaking trip in the San Juan Islands.

The next day, we went continued our orca watching adventures by going on a traditional whale watching boat. What I really liked about it is that it was a fairly small boat so it wasn’t packed with people. One of the naturalists on board (which makes me think of naked people, but that’s what they refer to themselves as), Heather, was really nice and seemed very passionate and knowledgeable about the orcas, so she was fun to talk to through the trip, which lasts about three to four hours. She offered everyone a pair of binoculars in the beginning, and unless you have your own with you already, take a pair. Trust me.


It wasn’t long before we came across a pod of orcas that migrated down from Vancouver. There are laws set in place that stop boaters from getting too close to the killer whales, and while I can respect and understand that, it was disappointing because we were really, really far away. These photos (minus the one taken at the top of the page) were taken with a zoom lens. I didn’t expect to go right up to them, but unless the killer whales are curious about your boat and swim up to you themselves, you have to keep quite a significant distance. This is just the law in the area and is something that all tour operators must abide by. But seriously, take the binoculars, because without them you won’t really see anything.


The killer whales we came across were busy hunting a seal, and after watching them for a while, it was time to make our way back. Apparently, the killer whales never did catch their prey—our boat captain received word that shortly after we left, the seal jumped on some random guy’s boat! Now that would’ve been interesting to see; I wonder what his next move was after that.

Speaking of seals, we saw a ton of them throughout the trip. We also saw a bald eagle.

All in all, both trips were a lot of fun and I’d recommend them. You never know what kind of day you will get, but the guides will definitely try their best to ensure you see as much as possible. If you only have time for one and you’re having a hard time deciding, I say go with the boat if whale watching is your primary goal. If you prefer just taking in the scenery and relaxing on the water, but don’t care much about whales, I’d recommend the kayaking.

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Essential Travel Information

Getting there: You’ll initially fly to Seattle, and then you can take a seaplane to the San Juan Islands. Alternatively, you can drive to Anacortes and then take a ferry. This option takes a few extra hours, but it’s a lot cheaper. Plus, the drive and ferry ride are both very scenic.

There are a lot of options when choosing an airline, and depending on where you’re flying from, you may be able to fly direct. Virgin Atlantic Airways and Hawaiian Airlines are just some good options. You can also look up airfare on FlightHub.com to compare flights from the airport of your choice.

Hotel information: We stayed at the Lakedale Resort at Three Lakes in Friday Harbor and highly recommend it!

Tours: We did our whale watching boat tour with San Juan Safaris, and our kayaking tour with San Juan Island Outfitters.

CityPASS: If you’ll be hanging out in Seattle at all, I highly recommend the Seattle CityPASS. For one low price, you can see a lot of the area’s top attractions. Learn more about the Seattle CityPASS and purchase one on their website.