Whale watching in the San Juan Islands is one of the most unique and special experiences one can have in the remote areas of Washington State.
Orcas are undoubtedly one of the most fascinating creatures in the ocean. Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been hoping for an orca encounter of my own, but thus far had fallen short.
As I have difficulty reconciling why orcas are held in captivity, I don’t plan on visiting any theme parks or aquariums to get a glimpse. But with both my sister and parents visiting from Australia in June – peak whale watching season – it seemed like the perfect opportunity to plan an excursion on the high seas!
Understanding Orcas in the San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands and surrounding waterways are said to be the best place on earth to see orcas in their natural environment. Transient orcas migrate through the area, while three communities of resident orcas live in these waters permanently. Humpbacks, minke and gray whales also frequent these waters.
Despite the ‘killer’ reputation, the southern resident orca pods don’t feed on mammals. They’re actually fish eaters, preferring to chow chinook salmon – a reason why they spend so much time around the San Juan Islands and Canadian Gulf Islands during warmer months.
While renowned as one of the world’s most powerful predators, research reveals orcas to be among the most intelligent and social creatures on earth. Each pod has their own dialect of sounds, their own unique culture and complex social relationships. AND they’re technically part of the dolphin family, not whales!
On the water with Mystic Sea Charters
There are a vast number of whale watch companies in the San Juan area, and I chose Mystic Sea Charters primarily due to great reviews and its Anacortes location. A day trip was much more manageable given the marina is a five minute drive from my house!
Mystic Sea Charters is also a SAFE member: focusing on safe and educational whale watching, and using a float plan and whale spotter pilot to help find the whales.
Mystic Sea Charters explores the San Juan Islands on a classic 100ft boat. There’s ample open viewing at the bow which ensures everyone can get a great outlook, and I appreciated the options of inside cabin and a sheltered seating area at the back of the boat, which is perfect if you need a short escape from the windy sea conditions.
The vessel can accommodate up to 60 passengers, however on this weekday in early June there would have been no more than 25 adventurers! That said, if you really want an intimate experience you may wish to find a smaller boat company to go with, such as zodiac-style tours.
As we sailed out of Cap Sante Marina and pointed towards the San Juans, our crew identified local points of interest and neighbouring islands. My family was eagerly positioned up front to get the best views, and I enjoyed seeing my local area from a different perspective.
Shortly into our trip, the on-board naturalist introduced herself, provided some history of the orcas and other native wildlife, and what we may expect to see on the day. Mystic Sea provided binoculars to share among the passengers, as well as many books and information sheets detailing the research into resident orca pods, including each resident’s name, estimated age and identifying marks (every orca fin is unique – the shape and size of dorsal fins and other markings help researchers to distinguish and study them).
Not long afterwards, we were advised that an orca pod had been spotted by another vessel, just west of Vancouver Island. It was one of the first transient sightings of the season, and with high hopes we could catch up, Mystic Sea tracked as fast as she could in their direction.
Along the way we passed harbor seal colonies sunning themselves on rocks near Lopez Island.
After more than two hours in pursuit, it unfortunately became clear that we were not going to meet up with our orcas, who were headed out into the open ocean.
My feelings of dejection quickly turned to delight when just a few minutes later, we were greeted by a whale of another kind – a humpback!
Appearing close to the bow of the boat, it rolled and lolled around on the surface before plunging deep below, disappearing for a few minutes before reappearing to repeat its dance.
In fact, I was so captivated I actually forgot to take photos! Instead, I perched myself back behind the crowd of eager photographers that had formed at the bow, and just enjoyed the show.
These photos are courtesy of my mother who was furiously snapping away while Mr Humpback emerged to say hello.
While orcas never graced us with their presence, the moments with a humpback whale were awesome. I’ve seen humpbacks many times before from land, but this was the closest I’ve ever been to these beautiful giants. To watch it gracefully breach from what seemed like a few feet away was truly breathtaking.
After watching for fifteen minutes or so, it was time to begin the journey back to Anacortes – spying more harbor seals, porpoises, and even a bald eagle feeding on fish on the way.
Final thoughts on whale watching in the San Juan Islands
I’ll have to admit, I was a little disappointed that I missed out on an orca sighting – especially after having talked up the excursion to my family for months prior. But it’s just a fact of nature that we can’t control, and that’s the way it should be. I’d rather take that small chance of seeing orcas in the wild then support an organisation that holds them in captivity for human entertainment.
Reflecting back now, I would have been pretty satisfied with the day had we seen no whales at all. The Mystic Sea crew was super friendly, knowledgeable, and respectful of the boundaries between humans and sea life. Their passion for educating their passengers made it clear – this was far from a ‘see and snap’ tour.
Five hours of sailing on a blue sky Washington day is truly time well spent. The Olympics to the south, the San Juan Islands to the north, Mt Rainier reining over all, and nothing but wide-open ocean ahead.
Those orcas? I’ll keep searching…
Update on 31st July: I have now officially seen orcas! Funnily enough, not on a whale watching cruise but on the Washington State Ferry en route to Lopez Island. We passed a pod breaching close to the island – and even though it was just a glimpse from several hundred meters away, I was thrilled!
Have you experienced whale watching in the San Juan Islands? Or had a cool encounter elsewhere in the world?
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