Island Experience

When Do the Whales Swim By? and other Frequently Asked Questions

Is Orcas Island named after the orca whale? Locals answer your FAQs about the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands are unique and special, both for visitors, and for the people who live here. For first-timers, a lot of questions may come upand the locals have heard it all. We thought you might enjoy some of the amusing questions fielded by localsand their answers may help you have a more enjoyable island visit.

Orca spyhop, Photography by Ken Rea
Whale skeletons at the Whale Museum


What time do the whales swim by?

When am I most likely to see orca whales in the San Juan Islands?

Will the whales be there when we go out on one of the watch boats?

Although we can't set our watches by the orca's lunchtime, you can increase your chances of seeing them by weighing your whale-watching options:

  • Orcas can be sighted all year long, but the three main Southern Resident pods (J-, K- and L-pods) primarily forage for chinook salmon in the Salish Sea during the summer months (May - September). 
  • Transient orcas also frequent the Salish Sea feeding on seals, porpoises, and the occasional seabird.
  • Seeing whales from shore is a possibility at Lime Kiln Point State Park, also known as Whale Watch Park, on San Juan Island's West Side, the only park dedicated to whale watching in the world. You may also see porpoises, seals, sea lions and eagles there.
  • Take a whale watching tour aboard a boat (seasonal) with a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. There are many such commercial operators on San Juan and Orcas Islands, and the boat captains are all in touch when they are out on the water, so they can give you the bestand safestwildlife viewing experience. Find out more about how to Leave No Trace and Be Whale Wise when traveling in nature.

Is there a real whale at The Whale Museum?

It may seem like a funny question, but the answer is yes! Before going out on a whale-watch tour, learn more about the whales and their environment at  The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.

  • While orcas officially belong to the dolphin family, dolphins and whales are closely related (i.e. all dolphins are technically whales but not all whales are dolphins). So therefore, orcas are both dolphins AND whales!
  •  The Whale Museum displays the skeletons of several deceased whales, including an adult killer whale, a yearling gray whale, a minke whale, and Sooke, a young orca that was found on an Oregon beach in 2012.
  • At the museum, you can also hear real whales communicate with each other on recordings of whalesong captured on a hydrophone device situated below the water at Lime Kiln Point State Park.

Is Orcas Island named after the orca whale? How come the main islands have Spanish names?

The San Juan Islands were named when a Spanish expedition commanded by explorer Francisco de Eliza charted the islands in 1791. He named them Isla y Archipelago de San Juan. The expedition sailed under the authority of the Viceroy of Mexico, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo.

  • Eliza named several places for him, including Orcas Island, whose name is a shortened version of "Horcasitas" (not after the Orcinus orca cetacean) and the grouping called the San Juan Islands.
  • Lopez Island is named after Gonzalo López de Haro, one of the officers under Eliza's command. Haro Strait, bordering the west side of San Juan Island, and Roche Harbor's Hotel de Haro are also named after him.
  • Members of several Coast Salish tribes had already inhabited these islands for thousands of years by 1791, the time of the Spanish expedition. The inland marine sea surrounding the San Juan Islands is called the Salish Sea and named after those earliest inhabitants, the Coast Salish people. Puget Sound (named after Peter Puget, an officer in the British Royal Navy), is one geographic component of the Salish Sea, as are all the straits within the sea, such as Rosario, Haro, Juan de Fuca and Georgia straits.


Pig War Reenactors at Roche Harbor, San Juan Island
Downtown Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Mike Bertrand


Are we in the USA?
Which country won the Pig War?
Do I need a passport to go to Friday Harbor or Orcas or Lopez?

Surprisingly, these questions would have been valid ones before 1872, when the San Juan Islands were finally designated to be in U.S. territory, rather than a part of Canada.

As early as 1845, the Hudson's Bay Company based at Fort Victoria, just 7 miles across the Haro Strait, claimed San Juan Island as an English outpost. By 1853, the islands were also claimed as U.S. possessions in the newly created Washington Territory, creating a state of limbo that lasted almost 20 years.

The dispute came to a head on on June 15, 1859, when Lyman Cutlar, an American, shot and killed an English Hudson's Bay Company pig rooting in his garden. For the next 12 years, the bloodless "Pig War" standoff kept the islands on guard, until the border was finally decided in 1872 by decree of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, adding the San Juan Islands to America's territory.  Find out more about San Juan Islands History.

Is this a real town?

Although Friday Harbor is picturesque and quaint, we guarantee its authenticity 100 percent! In fact, Friday Harbor is the only "real town" in San Juan County. The other islands have villages (Eastsound on Orcas Island and Lopez Village on Lopez Island) and hamlets (Olga and West Sound on Orcas Island, for instance), but they are not incorporated towns. While Friday Harbor has an elected mayor, Eastsound also has an election for "Honorable Mayor" each year—last year's winner was Granny, the centenarian orca whale. She wrote an excellent letter to the editor at the end of her term.

Find out how Friday Harbor got its name.

Ferry coming into Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
Ferry coming into Orcas Landing, Orcas Island


Do I have to make reservations on the Washington State Ferry to travel to the San Juans?

Do I have to pay both ways to get to and from the islands by ferry?

Do the ferries run in the winter?

  • Washington State Ferry fares to the San Juan Islands paid at the Anacortes terminal include round trip travel. Fares are less expensive in the off-season (late-September through mid-May).
  • Reservations are available and recommended on the WSF, as well as on the Sidney, British Columbia (Canada) ferry (you'll need your passport to go to Canada).
  • WSF runs year-round, though on seasonal schedules throughout the year. So be sure to check out their website (above) for a current or upcoming schedule.
  • Reservations are available and highly recommended. Find out more at Getting Here is Half the Fun.

Can I bring my car on the ferry?
Is there a way to get around the islands if I do not bring my car?
When I arrive at my island destination, how can I get around to the other islands?

  • You can travel with your car between Lopez, Orcas, San Juan, and Shaw via the Washington State Ferry. There is a fee for vehicles (by length and height) and drivers traveling west-bound only; there is no charge for walk-ons or bicycles. Or, walk on the ferry and enjoy a free cruise around the islands. You can also travel between these four islands, and some others, via our local airlines and water taxis. Find out more at Getting Around.
  • San Juan Island and the town of Friday Harbor offer several options for transportation. You may choose to take a seasonal shuttle, moped, or scoot coupe (May through September) around the island, take a taxi, rent a car, or bicycle. All are within walking distance of the ferry terminal.
  • Orcas Island also offers a seasonal transit shuttle on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May through mid-September. You can also rent a car, bicycle, (seasonal) moped, or scoot coupe from the ferry terminal at Orcas Village, or you can call a taxi from the pay phone located at the ferry terminal.
  • Lopez Island offers bicycle rentals which are located in Lopez Village, 4 miles from the ferry terminal.
  • Some inns and B&Bs on all three islands will pick up guests at the ferry terminal, so ask your host if they offer this service.
Winter storm waves, San Juan Island, Photography by Kevin D. Holmes
Orcas Island Historical Museum, Orcas Island


"Where do you go in the winter?"  "I live here."  "I know, but where do you go in the winter when the island is closed?"

How do you keep the island from floating away?

Where do the islands go in the winter?

Believe it or not, these are real questions people have asked about the islands. Yes, the San Juan Islands seem like a seasonal place, but there is a population of about 15,000 people on the four main ferry-served islands, Lopez, Orcas, Shaw and San Juan Islands. Although some businesses close or are open fewer hours, more and more businesses are staying open year round, and there is plenty to do in the off-season.

Celebrate holiday events, go winter hiking at our state and national historical parks, or enjoy a great meal and glass of local wine at one of our local restaurants. Browse bookstores, shops and galleries, see fascinating art at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, or visit the three island historical museums. There's plenty to do while the islands float their way through a cool and misty winter.

Where can I learn about the history of the islands?

One of the most fun things to do in the winter is to get to know the history of the islands at the local historical museums on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Islands. The San Juan Islands have hosted visitors for many generations and year-round communities for over a hundred years. Visit the San Juan Island National Historical Park, which includes American Camp and English Camp, created in 1966 based upon the idea: that individuals and nations can solve their problems peacefully. For it was here, in 1859, that the United States and Great Britain nearly went to war over a pig shot by an American farmer, during an on-going boundary dispute.

Kids playing with puzzle on the interisland ferry, San Juan Islands
Traveling with pets, Earthbox Inn, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island


What kind of activities are there for children in the San Juan Islands?

The San Juan Islands is a great place for families. Kids can beachcomb, observe tidepools, or walk miles of trails inhabited with an abundance of wildlife. See eagles, deer, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, seals, porpoises, and whales, just on an island stroll. Go for a whale watching tour by boat, or guided kayaking adventure (seasonal and depends on your age). Eat ice cream on the docks, check out the small aquarium at Spring Street Landing in Friday Harbor as well as the Coast Salish houseposts in the park by the harbor. Enjoy The Funhouse on Orcas Island, skateboarding parks on all three islands, horseback riding, browsing children's toy stores, visiting The Whale Museum, or A Place to Play in Friday Harbor and more!

Can I bring my pet to the islands? Are there pet-friendly lodgings and activities?

The islands are a great place to travel with pets. Many lodgings in the islands are pet-friendly, and many parks allow pets on-leash. There are also dog parks on Orcas Island and San Juan Island for your puppy to run free.

    How can I find out about festivals and events happening during my visit to the islands?

    Special events occur year round! Many events are free and most are open to the general public. Please check out our Calendar of Events for up-to-date listings.

    Other favorite questions heard by locals:

    "Are you allowed to stay here at night when they close the island?" My response? "No. The prison work release boat picks us all up at midnight."

    "We came over on the ferry but would like to drive back. Where's the bridge?" My coworker responded, "Right behind the train station."

    "Will you store my fish for 10 days?" (Local tip: You may be able to find a  short-term freezer locker at Ron's Island Meats.)

    "What elevation are we at?" (Asked at the ferry landing)

    Welcome to the San Juan Islands!