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 “Southern Residents”—are typically in the area from spring through 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.

There are several organizations that are dedicated to saving the declining populations of orca and other whales by educating people about how to conserve the habitats in which these majestic animals live. 


Courtesy San Juan Outfitters
J-Pod orca calf, San Juan Islands


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.

Download the Be Whale Wise brochure.

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


Guidelines from Whale & Dolphin Conservation (WDC)

What do Southern Residents need to thrive?

1. A healthy ecosystem: What goes down the drain will eventually end up in the ocean, and toxins have impacted this species.

2. Time to rest and socialize: Constant noise and disturbance disrupts their normal behavioral patterns and increases stress.

3. An adequate supply of healthy salmon: Healthy rivers support more salmon, which is good for orcas and the entire ecosystem.

What You Can Do to Help the Whales

The Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2005, and the population is still struggling to thrive. Here are some tips from our friends at Whale and Dolphin Conservation about how you can help.

  • Respect their home by reducing, reusing and recycling paper, plastic and other packaging and products. Reduce pollutants entering the waterways by being mindful of products used. Reduce your carbon footprint.
  • Respect their space. Stay at least 200 yards away from orcas and go slow! Keep clear of their apparent path.
  • Be their voice when you contact your local and national legislators and ask them to support restoration of the Klamath Basin and dam breaching on the Snake River.
  • Download the Whale & Dolphin Conservation (WDC) information card.
  • Support WDC at www.whales.org.
  • Follow the Whale Trail.
  • Visit The Whale Museum.
  • Check out the Center for Whale Research website.
  • Learn more about how to boat safely at Soundwatch.