Follow the Whale Trail
See orcas in the wild, learn about Salish Sea wildlife, and enjoy the ride into the whales' world
The San Juan Islands are one of the best places in the world to see beautiful black-and-white orca whales in the wild. Your best chance to see whales in the wild is from a whale watch boat, but you may also catch them passing by from some of the coastal locations on The Whale Trail's collection of whale-focused museums, parks and launching points - that run all the way down the West Coast.
The Pacific Northwest is also experiencing a “humpback comeback” and other whales, such as minkes and grays can be seen in the area. There are several ways to go about seeing and learning about the beautiful and mysterious ‘blackfish’, as the first people in this region used to call them.
Here are a couple of ways to make your trip more fun and more educational:
The Whale Museum
Before going out on a whale watching tour, stop by The Whale Museum to learn from experts about what you may see in our waters. One of the highlights of the museum is the skeleton of a young orca named Sooke (L-112) that mysteriously died in 2013. The museum shows the process of preparing the skeleton for display, and has several other exhibits where you can learn about the different kinds of whales that swim in the Salish Sea, hear whalesong, learn to identify individual orcas by their markings, and learn what it takes to “Be Whale Wise” when viewing whales in the wild. This historic building in Friday Harbor, just three blocks from the ferry landing, also has a gift shop with a nice selection of sea-life related gifts, books, DVDs, toys, and lots more.
The Whale Tail Sculpture
Just steps from the ferry landing in Friday Harbor is a large outdoor sculpture representing the San Juan Islands love affair with whales. The 5-foot-tall polished aluminum “Fluke,” is in the shape of an orca tail, or fluke, and was created by Friday Harbor sculptor, Micajah Bienvenu. His work can also be seen at the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, in the lavender fields at Pelindaba Lavender Farm, and at Roche Harbor.
Friday Harbor Waterfront
Ride with expert whale and wildlife tour operators based in Friday Harbor, just steps from the Washington State Ferry Landing. You can join a larger tour, with up to 80 people, or a smaller boat for up to six people, depending on your group and interests, year round. They frequently ply the waters of the Salish Sea, visiting inlets and passages between islands up to Saturna Island in Canada, or down to the southern tip of San Juan Island near Cattle Point Lighthouse, where seals and sea lions loll on distant rocks. On-board naturalists offer detailed information about the habitats and behavior of animals in this rich ecosystem.
On your whale watch tour, you may see not just orca whales, but different species as well: gray, minke, and humpback whales also visit these waters. Not to mention seals, porpoises, sea lions, otters, bald eagles, and numerous seabirds. And you’ll pick up a whole new whale-related vocabulary—spyhops, breaches, and single and double tail lobs. On some whale watch tours, you’ll hear via hydrophone the whales calling to one another. Most boats have an onboard naturalist to explain what you’re seeing.
Local whale watch operators adhere closely to state and federal guidelines developed to ensure the whales’ behavior and life cycles aren’t disturbed. Our “Southern Residents” are endangered and protected by state and federal law, and there is a strong local culture of respect for the whales. Boats must not approach closer than 200 yards—but that’s plenty close enough when you’re looking at a 30-foot mammal.
San Juan County Park
On the island’s west side, about 10 miles from Friday Harbor or Roche Harbor, you’ll find the popular 12-acre San Juan County Park, where you can camp on the shores of Haro Strait and enjoy views of the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island. This is a great place to set out a kayak, with the idea of potentially seeing some whales and other wildlife. Find your own rocky bluff, explore beaches and tide pools, watch for whales, picnic and play in the meadow or the short cliffside trails, or launch your kayak in the waters of Smallpox Bay, where First Peoples waded to cool their fevers. (More recently, Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock starred in scenes shot here for the film Practical Magic.)
Lime Kiln Point State Park
You can also visit Lime Kiln Point State Park (aka “Whale Watch Park”) on San Juan Island's west side. The Friends of the Lime Kiln Society (FOLKS) offer many free services, including an informative interpretive center, lighthouse, intertidal and park-wide tours, and fun special events during the tourist season.
Just a short walk from the parking lot, you can stand on the rocky promontory and see a richly diverse environment, from rocky shoreline to wooded uplands. Seals, sea lions, and river otters cruise the shoreline through kelp beds and eel grass, looking for food. Eagles and seabirds reel overhead. The lighthouse was built in 1919 and still serves as a navigational beacon for ships in the Haro Strait, and offers tours during the summer. The park is considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from land, and there is a small seasonal gift shop and interpretive center where you can learn more.
If you want to find a cozy getaway, but still catch some amazing wildlife watching time, Snug Harbor Resort is a great choice With 16 new cabins, a cozy little coffee bar called Mitchell Bay Coffee, and a view of the charming harbor, this little-known resort is also home to a whale watching boat that hosts six passengers, for an intimate group wildlife watching experience. A naturalist/photographer leads you to seal rocks, eagle nests and orca whales, all while staying a respectful (and required) 200 yards from these magnificent creatures.
At the north end of San Juan Island, historic Roche Harbor is a great place to set out on a whale watching adventure. Whale watching tours and kayak trips go out from the docks right in front of the Hotel de Haro. After an afternoon of water adventures, you can sit outside and enjoy a drink while watching the boats come and go, buy fresh-caught seafood on the docks to take back to your grill, get a massage at the spa, or browse for cool gifts at the little shops.
It is easy to confuse the name of the whale (orca, lower case “o”) with the name of Orcas Island, but it is a good distinction to know. The ‘orca’ whale is part of the Latin scientific classification Orcinus orca, which translates as "belonging to Orcus" - Orcus was a Roman god of the netherworld, and this genus name is likely a reference to the hunting prowess of the killer whale. In Latin, orca translates "large-bellied pot or jar", but orc- also refers to a whale.
The name of Orcas Island, on the other hand, came when Spanish explorers entered the area in 1792 and named the San Juan Islands after various Spanish and Mexican dignitaries. Orcas was a shortened version of Horcasitas, after Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, the Viceroy of Mexico who sent an exploration expedition under Francisco de Eliza to the Pacific Northwest in 1791. Eliza used the name for the whole archipelago, but in 1847, mapmaker Henry Kellett assigned the name to Orcas Island during his reorganization of the British Admiralty charts.
You can sign up for ‘orca’ watching tours in Eastsound (look for the kiosk in front of Brown Bakery) and Deer Harbor on ‘Orcas’ Island.
On Lopez, you can catch a ride on an Orcas island boat which makes a stop at the Lopez Islander Resort. As with many of the boats, there is a naturalist on board that will point out wildlife and share natural history with you. Also, these boats hold fewer than 20 people, so your ride will be a fun and intimate adventure, visiting the same spots as a tour leaving from any other island, and seeking out the whales and other wildlife in their natural home.
Find out more about whale watching in the San Juan Islands.