Island Experience

Into the Whale’s World

Why whale watching in Washington State’s San Juan Islands should be on your bucket list

Written by:

Shannon Borg

Kenmore Air, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington
Looking back at Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington

On the kind of hot August day where the world vibrates with life, I walked down the docks with a couple of friends, in the little port town of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. We were there for a new experience—to see giants of the ocean up close. The air smelled of salt, seaweed and of frying fish and chips from the pub on the corner. We were greeted by a nautical gentleman with a captain’s hat and beard. Our captain and naturalist were waiting by our ride for the day, an open-plan boat with outside seating and a cozy cabin, filled with snacks, if it got cool. We jumped onto the boat with about a dozen other excited people and backed out of the slip into the open harbor. On one side, the huge new Washington State Ferry, Samish, was pulling in from its hour-long trip from Anacortes. Above us, a yellow-and-white Kenmore Air float plane on a 30-minute flight from Seattle, tipped its wings, preparing to land on the steely blue harbor.

Sea Lions, Photography by Jim Maya
Whale & Wildlife Watching, San Juan Island, Washington

An ocean perspective

We moved out of the harbor and across Griffin Bay towards Cattle Point Lighthouse, with Lopez Island to our port side. There was a light wind, so it was cooler on the water, but still comfortable. The naturalist on board started to point out wildlife as we passed, slowing down and pulling past a huge rock. At first, I didn’t see anything—it just looked like a big, golden rocky island that rose less than 10 feet out of the water.

Then I saw it move. The whole island seemed to be moving. As we got a bit closer, I could see dozens of sea lions lolling in the sun, and nearby, harbor seals lounged with their tails arched and taut, pointing their whiskered noses to the sky. The sea lions barked and shuffled for higher ground.

The boat continued north around the west side of San Juan Island, with Vancouver Island to our port side, and the naturalist pointed out eagle nests along the shoreline, and a few majestic birds floated on the updrafts from the water, or perched stoically in the tops of Douglas fir trees.

I began to hear oohs and aahs from my fellow passengers, and I turned around to see four huge black dorsal fins rising and falling in and out of the water a dozen yards off our starboard bow.

Orca gathering, Photography by Jim Maya
Orca mother and calf, Photography by Jim Maya

Pod party

Superpod!” the naturalist called out. “The pods come together a few times a year to party!” For these animals, partying means intermingling, socializing and mating, a natural drive to keep the gene pool varied – and maybe just to enjoy themselves. In the past two years, 9 new orca babies have been born. Sure enough, several different groups of orcas of varied ages in the family groups funneled together into the channel. They seemed excited to see each other. We saw tail-flaps, breaching and spyhopping (peeking up out of the water). Perhaps some of them hadn’t seen each other since last season, like summer camp kids coming back to rediscover their summer romance.

It was truly exhilarating! The breeze ruffled the water and the sun glinted off the shiny black-and-white whales, each with its own markings. Our naturalist called out and points to the group. “There’s Cappucino! He’s K-21, with a long white eye-patch and swirls around his dorsal fin.” She told us how the captains, naturalists and marine biologists around the world identify individual orcas by their very specific markings, and can tell where each orca moves, which small family unit they belong to, their health, socialization with other groups, and more. Orcas can live up to 90 years, similar to human lifespans. Females can breed into their 40s. The current head of this matriarchal species and oldest known orca, Granny (J-2), is thought to be 105 years old.

J26 Mike Breaching, San Juan Islands, Photography by Monika Wieland
Orca Gathering, San Juan Islands, Photography by Jim Maya

“There’s Mike!” she said. “J-26 is a big male that is very active, breaching out of the water and flipping his tail. There’s Oreo, J-22! She’s mother of Double Stuf (J-34) and Cookie (J-38).” Although it’s human-centric to name these orcas—especially after cookies and coffee (some have more native-inspired names, such as Samish (J-14) and Skagit (K-13)), it is also a way for us to acknowledge them as individuals, as part of a community and family. There’s so much to learn about these animals in their natural habitat. There are laws here, keeping boats 200 yards away from these magnificent creatures, but if orcas pass the boat more closely, the captains cut the engines and sit in the water while they pass by. These animals live in pods—and in this area surrounding the San Juan Islands, J-, K- and L-pods are three family units of “Southern Resident” orcas that frequent these waters, following Chinook salmon.

For an hour, my friends and I watched as little groups of three and four came together into larger groups—we counted about 35 in all—swam back and forth, breached out of the water, flapped their flukes at each other, and kept us in awe of their beauty and energy, living the fullest of lives in their beautiful home, the Salish Sea. I noticed a symbiotic beauty to this shared experience. As these giants were living their lives to the fullest, so were my friends and I, simply by watching them in their world.

Find out about fun things to do in the San Juan Islands, and how you can go on a Whale and Wildlife Tour.

Top photo courtesy of Jim Maya, Maya's Legacy Whale Watching.