Whale-friendly Wildlife Watching

Here are some guidelines to help you watch marine wildlife responsibly

Magnificent orca (or killer) whales can be seen in the Salish Sea around the San Juan Islands year round. Three pods, J, K & L­—the critically endangered “Southern Residents”—are generally in the area from late spring through early fall, while "Transients" can often be seen year-round, as well as humpback and minke whales, Dall's porpoise, Steller sea lions, and harbor seals. Spotting these animals in the wild is a sensational experience. In our enthusiasm, it's easy to forget that our presence has an effect on wildlife. Like us, marine mammals need space to find food, choose mates, raise babies, socialize and rest. When we get too close, approach too fast, or make too much noise, we may be disrupting these activities and causing the animals unnecessary stress. Set an example for others, and help protect our spectacular marine wildlife.

Be Whale Wise:

The Laws

Washington State:

  • Boats to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident orca on either side.  For reference on the water, 300 yards is about three Washington State Ferry lengths or one and a half football fields away from the whales.
  • Boats to stay 400 yards from Southern Resident orca ahead and behind the whales
  • Boats to go slow (<7 knots) within ½ mile of Southern Resident orcas
  • Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.
  • Boats to stay 100 yards from all other marine mammals (e.g. humpback whales, gray whales, sea lions, and seals).


  • Boats must stay 400 meters from killer whales in Southern Resident critical habitat.
  • Boats must stay 200 meters from killer whales in other BC waters.
  • Boats must stay 100 meters from all other cetaceans (e.g. humpback whales, gray whales).
  • Boats must stay out of certain sections of Swiftsure Bank, off the east coast of Saturna Island and south-west of North Pender Island.

Learn more about these regulations and report violations at www.bewhalewise.org 


Can I use my drone?

Thinking about bringing your drone?  Please be aware that drones are not permitted on public lands and waters in San Juan County. This includes state parks, the San Juan Island National Historical Park, Land Bank preserves, and the National Monument.  Please respect other visitors, residents, historic buildings, and wildlife, especially the Southern Resident orcas.


Courtesy San Juan Outfitters
L pod female orca

Marine Wildlife Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers and Viewers

1. Be Cautious, Courteous and Quiet when around areas of known or suspected marine wildlife activity, in the water or at haul-outs and bird colonies on land; especially in May to September during breeding, nesting and seal pupping seasons.

2. Look in all directions before planning your approach or departure from viewing wildlife.

3. Always approach and depart from the side, moving parallel to the animal's direction of travel. If the animal(s) are approaching you, cautiously move out of the way and avoid abrupt course changes. Do Not Approach from the front or from behind.

4. Place Engine in Neutral and allow animals to pass if your vessel is not in compliance with the approach regulation or guideline (#1).

5. Pay Attention and move away, slowly and cautiously, at the first sign of disturbance of agitation.

6. Stay on the Offshore side of whales when they are traveling close to shore.

7. Always avoid going through groups of porpoises or dolphins and hold course and reduce speed gradually to discourage bow or stern-riding.

8. Limit your viewing time to 30 minutes or less. This will reduce the cumulative impact of all vessels and give consideration to other viewers.

9. Do Not Disturb, swim with, move, feed or touch any marine wildlife. If you are concerned about a potentially sick, stranded or entangled animal, call the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1 (800) 562-8832 or email [email protected].

10. Turn off fish finders and depth sounders if safe to do so.

11. Use Whale Warning Flag to warn fellow boaters to the presence of whales.

Visit www.bewhalewise.org to learn more! 

Download the Be Whale Wise brochure.

Whale watching from shore, Photography by Kathleen Ballard
Southern Resident Killer Whales by Ken Rea, Spirit of Orca
Orcas by Toccara Best

How You Can Help the Southern Resident Orcas

There are a lot of actions we can take in our day-to-day lives.