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 resources.


Courtesy San Juan Outfitters
L pod female orca
Be Whale Wise (bewhalewise.org)


Be Whale Wise

Marine Wildlife Laws & Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers and Viewers

1. Do Not Approach or position your vessel closer than 200 yards to any orca whale in the U.S. Do Not Approach or get closer than 100 yards to any other marine mammals or birds, whether on the water or on land.

2. 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.

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

4. Slow Down and reduce speed to less than 7 knots when within 400 yards of the nearest marine mammal to reduce your engine's noise and vessel's wake.

5. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

11. Do Not Disturb, swim with, move, feed or touch any marine wildlife. If you are concerned about a potentially sick, stranded or entangled animal, contact your local stranding network.

Visit www.bewhalewise.org to learn more! 

Download the Be Whale Wise brochure.

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.


San Juan County's Whale Warning Flag

The Whale Warning Flag

The Whale Warning flag serves as a safety notification to other boaters on the water that whales are around. Flags will only be raised if whales are within 0.65 miles (1 km) of a boat or land-based site and will be taken down as soon as the boat or whales have moved out of the area. Larger flags will be flown from land-based sites on the west side of San Juan Island such as the San Juan County Park, Lime Kiln Point State Park, and the San Juan County Land Bank.  If you see one flying, slow down and proceed with caution to comply with the “Be Whale Wise” guidelines and federal and state laws. 

Whale watching from shore, Photography by Kathleen Ballard
Orca gathering, Photography by Jim Maya

Safe Distance

Do Not Approach or position your vessel closer than 200 yards to any orca whale in the U.S. Do Not Approach or get closer than 100 yards to any other marine mammals or birds, whether on the water or on land.

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.