Essentially all whale watching opportunities in the state of Washington involve the San Juan Islands or the area around these islands, including the Puget Sound. This area is off the northwestern coast of Washington, which is made up of a maze of islands and waterways where whales and other marine life are frequently spotted. To give you a better idea of what to expect if you go on a whale watching cruise in the San Juan Islands or there about, we have compiled the following guide.
As we explained in some depth in our overview of whale watching in Washington, there are several departure points for whale watching cruises in Washington. However, they are all concentrated in one area, and they basically surround the zone in which whales are sought. There are departure points on the mainland of Washington (like the coastal cities of Bellington and Everett), but there are also companies that depart from the San Juan Islands themselves. For example, there are a lot of whale watching cruises that launch from Orcas Island, the biggest of the San Juan Islands, and you can’t even get to this island without taking a ferry. So, if you envision the “whale watching zone” of Washington as something of an oddly shaped circle that encompasses everything off the state’s northwestern coast, you can begin a whale watching cruise from the edge of this circle or within the circle itself.
The San Juan Islands and the surrounding waters are a good place to whale watch in part because some of this area is protected. Parts of the San Juan Islands make up the San Juan Islands National Monument, so there is a limit to the amount of development and wildlife displacement that can take place in this area. For obvious reasons, a lot of whale watching takes place in protected areas. Whale watching cruises from San Francisco go to the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and whale watching in Monterey Bay takes place in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. There is a big difference between a National Marine Sanctuary and a National Monument, as the former is of course more focused on protecting aquatic environments, but it never hurts to have protected land in an area in which marine life flourishes.
However, the main draw of northwestern Washington’s coastal waters is that they contain a lot of killer whales, or orcas, and in most other places killer whales are rarely seen on whale watching cruises. Many of the killer whales seen in this area are merely passing through, but there are also resident pods (groups) that are seen with regularity. Killer whales are often seen around the San Juan Islands, but they can be seen in the Puget Sound, which is south of the islands. Killer whales can be seen all year, but the peak season is from late spring to early fall. Although orcas are the focus of a lot of whale watchers, other whales can be seen in the area, particularly gray whales, which are migrating past Washington from roughly March through May as they head to warmer waters to give birth.
The San Juan Islands and the surrounding area is definitely one of the premier places to whale watch in the United States (and Canada – this area can be and is just as easily reached from Vancouver Island). Some of this area is protected land, which limits future development, and there are also killer whales in the area, which aren’t frequently seen on whale watching cruises.