Most of the whale watching action in Washington takes place around the San Juan Islands, and the largest of the San Juan Islands is Orcas Island, so it stands to reason that there are a number of whale watching cruises from Orcas Island, and indeed there are. As always, though, it is hard to figure out exactly which company you should go whale watching with, or for that matter to figure out which companies you can whale watch with, and it isn’t always easy to determine this information by sifting through search results and brochures. To make the process easier, we have compiled the following guide to whale watching from Orcas Island, which lists the companies you can sail with and their basic offerings.
As we explain in our guide to whale watching in the San Juan Islands, this region is primarily known for the orcas, or killer whales, that inhabit the waters surrounding the islands. (Strangely, the name “Orcas Island” doesn’t appear to have any connection to the orcas that surround it. “Orcas” is short for Horcasitas, a Mexican explorer more expansively known as Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo. He explored the Pacific Northwest, and this is who the island is named after.) This makes the San Juan Islands unique, as most whale watching along the pacific coast focuses on other whales (especially gray whales), and thus killer whales are infrequently seen on cruises that depart from California and Oregon. Of course, other whales are occasionally seen on whale watching cruises in Washington, and so is a lot of other marine life (porpoise, seals, sea lions, etc.), but killer whales are the main draw. This is worth mentioning in its own right, but we also bring it up in this context to stress the similarities between all whale watching cruises from Orcas Island. The ships are all patrolling the same waters looking for the same animals, and, as you’ll shortly see, the duration and prices of these cruises are comparable, so in a lot of ways it doesn’t really matter who you book your cruise with.
That said, there are three distinct companies that offer dedicated whale watching cruises form Orcas Island: Orcas Island Eclipse Charters, Orcas Island Excursions, and Deer Harbor Charters. All of these companies operate during the peak killer whale watching season, which starts (more or less) at the beginning of April and lasts through October. During this period, Orcas Island Eclipse Charters and Orcas Island Excursions both offer three- to four-hour cruises that cost $99, and Deer Harbor Charters offers cruises of the same length for $85. (These are the prices for adult tickets, and children’s tickets are on average about $20-$30 cheaper.) Late spring to mid fall is definitely the main season for whale watching around the San Juan Islands, but Deer Harbor Charters also offers cruises from November through April at the discounted rate of $69 for adult tickets. (Deer Harbor classifies April as still part of the off season, and thus you can get the discounted ticket during this month, even though most whale watching companies, on Orcas Island and elsewhere, mark the beginning of the killer whale season sometime during April.)
These are the basics of the whale watching cruise opportunities on Orcas Islands, but before you book anything, it is worth clicking around the sites of each company to discern their exact offerings. Not all the cruises leave at the same time and from the same place, and these are the details that you’ll need to iron out as you determine which company to book with and finalize your plans. In any case, there are plenty of whale watching cruises from Orcas Island, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding one, and no matter which one you go with, you’ll be in for more or less the same whale watching experience.