Island Experience

Responsible Wildlife Watching in the San Juans

Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation offers guidelines for keeping wildlife wild

In addition to beautiful scenery and interesting history, the San Juan Islands are home to a rich variety of wildlife. Whether you have a quiet picnic or go for a long hike, seeing and hearing a range of wild creatures can add to your enjoyment of this special place. You may be lucky enough to watch a Bald Eagle soar overhead, see a Harbor Seal pop its head out of the water or catch a glimpse of a doe and her fawn moving quietly through the trees. There may be little swallows swooping to catch insects, a garter snake warming itself on a rock or a heron standing motionless at the edge of the water. They are all around you if you look and listen!

Rufus Hummingbird in Indian Paintbrush, Photography by Phil Green


Tips for Better Wildlife Watching

Slow and Quiet - Move slowly and quietly. If you move quickly and make lots of noise, most wild animals will be gone long before you realize they are there.

Listen and Look - Use your ears as well as your eyes.  Often the first clue that a wild animal is nearby is a sound - a few cheeps from the branches above your head, or a rustle in the bushes.

Sit and Watch - Choose a good spot, sit quietly, and look around.  It’s more rewarding to watch animals acting naturally, unaware that you are there.

Not Too Close - Don’t be tempted to move closer to get a better look or a good photo.  Use binoculars to watch from a distance or a telephoto lens to take photos. If an animal reacts to your presence, you are too close.

**The foxes in the grasslands of American Camp on San Juan Island are an attractive subject to photograph and unfortunately have become habituated to people. It can be tempting to approach them, especially the playful kits, but the best photographs come from animals who aren’t disturbed. NOTE: It is illegal to willfully remain near or approach wildlife within ANY distance that disturbs or displaces the animal. **

Read more about The Foxes of American Camp by naturalist and photographer Monika Wieland.

Steller Sea Lions at Cattle Point, Photography by Jim Maya
Red Fox and kit by Mark Gardner


Reducing Your Impact

While you are enjoying wildlife in the islands, be aware that your activities can also harm them.  Here are some ways you can help prevent this.

CARS – Many wild animals, including deer, otters, raccoons, and owls, are hit by cars. 

Drive slowly and carefully, especially at night and in wooded areas.

DOGS – Dogs love to chase, and can injure or kill wild animals.

 Keep your dog under control at all times.

LITTER – Bottles, cans, plastic bags, etc., are all potential hazards for wildlife.

Dispose of all garbage properly.

FISHING – Animals can become caught in the discarded fishing line, nets or hooks. 

Remove unwanted or snagged fishing gear.

FOOD – It may seem like you’re doing the animals a favor, but feeding wildlife can result in harm to yourself and the animal because:

  • Animals lose their natural fear of humans, which could create a situation where they may bite or attack.
  • It attracts animals to roadways and parking lots where sometimes fatal accidents can occur
  • Young animals become reliant on handouts when they should be learning how to find their natural foods.


Protect Popeye

** Popeye the harbor seal is a beloved member of the Friday Harbor community. However, marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Feeding, touching, or harassing them is illegal and may result in fines up to $10,000 per infraction. The best chance for these animals to survive and thrive is to find their own food and not associate food with people. Please help us protect Popeye and other marine mammals in our ecosystem! ** 

Learn more about Leave No Trace.


Boats & Kayaks

Just like us, marine mammals need space to find food, choose mates, raise young, 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.

  • Keep your vessel at least 200 yards from and out of their path of travel
  • Reduce speed to 7 knots when within 400 yards of whales to reduce engine noise and wake
  • In the presence of whales, kayakers should raft up, stop paddling, and wait until the animals are at least 400 yards away.

Learn more at Be Whale Wise.


Beaches & Tidepools

Every June through August, nearly 2,000 new seal pups are born around the Islands. Although it can be thrilling to see these adorable, doe-eyed youngsters sunning on the beach or bobbing in the water next to their mothers, it is important to make sure that our bustling human population does not hinder the seals’ well-being. How can you help? The best thing to do is to give it space! Zero human interference actually maximizes the pup’s chances for survival.

If you come across a pup this season, please follow these simple rules:

  • Do not touch or move it
  • Do not feed it
  • Do not pour water on it
  • Do not try to drive it back into the water
  • DO keep people and dogs at least 100 yards away (it’s the law!)
  • DO call the stranding hotline 1-800-562-8832
  • DO educate those around you to do the same!

Tide pools are fascinating microcosms of marine life only revealed at low tides. There can be a dozen species in a rocky crevice the size of your bathroom sink.  Use these helpful tips while exploring:

  • LIFT A ROCK? Gently put it back so you don’t harm the creatures underneath.
  • USE A TWO-FINGER TOUCH Invertebrates are amazing and delicate animals.
  • TREAD LIGHTLY Many rocks are covered in live mussels, barnacles, or other marine life. They can be slippery, too.
Harbor Seal, Photography by Jim Maya


Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace

San Juan County is the first county in the United States to become an official "Leave No Trace" county, and adopt its own Leave No Trace policy.