Whale watching and the San Juan Islands go hand in hand…when you search for one, you’ll usually find the other. And while there are so many reasons to visit the San Juans, no visit here would be complete without an excursion to see the magnificent orca whales (fondly called “blackfish” by the Northwest Coast Native peoples) whether by kayak, tour boat or from the shore.
An Introduction to Killer Whales
Before you embark on your whale watching trip to the Pacific Northwest, we’d like to introduce you to our most famous residents, the Southern Resident Killer Whale population (also known as SRKW)! The SRKW population totals 73 whales, as of July 1, 2019, when they were counted by the Center for Whale Research. The whales (also called orcas/Orcinus orca) are a large extended family grouped into three pods, J, K, and L. Each of these clans forms sub-pods focused around older females, usually grandmothers or great-grandmothers, who keep their offspring, both male and female, close for life.
J Pod consists of 22 members and is the pod that can appear year-round in the waters of the San Juan Islands and Southern Gulf Islands, Georgia Strait, and the lower Puget Sound (near Seattle). This pod frequents the west side of San Juan Island in mid- to late spring.
K Pod (not to be confused with the coffee) is the smallest pod with only 17 members. The most recent birth in K Pod was a male calf (K44) born in 2011 to K27, her first known offspring.
L Pod is the largest of the three Southern Resident pods with 34 members. The oldest member of L Pod and the entire SRKW community, is L25, who is estimated to be 91 years old. One of L Pod’s males is L87, who for some reason has been traveling with J pod since 2010. The pod welcomed its newest calf (L124) in December 2018.
If you’re fortunate on your San Juan orca expedition, you might see all three pods come together into a super pod. Each of the Southern Resident pods communicates with a unique set of calls. Some of the calls are shared between all three pods, while others are distinct to J, K, or L pod. The calls can travel 10 miles or more underwater.
The SRKW population has fluctuated considerably since 1976 when the combined pod families numbered 68. Before this, marine parks were allowed to capture live orcas for display, but were banned from the practice after 40% of the population was either taken into captivity or killed during capture. The orcas showed signs of recovery when the pods grew to 98 individuals in 1995. In 2005, the US government afforded the species protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the SRKW population is still on the path to extinction with the primary cause being human-caused scarcity of Chinook Salmon, the orcas’ main food source. (This could be the subject of an entire post on its own!)
Transient (or Biggs) Killer whales also reside in the Salish Sea. They too are an orca, but are genetically distinct from the Southern Residents and they don’t mate with one another. Evidence has shown that these two populations, despite looking so similar, have social and cultural differences and haven’t shared a common ancestor in 750,000 years! Another key difference is in their diet – transients are mammal hunters who feast on seals, porpoises, sea lions and dolphins rather than salmon.
Other Whales Not to be outdone, humpback whales, Minkes and gray whales are making a comeback in the pacific Northwest. (Again, worthy of another post!)
Where to see whales in the San Juan Islands
And now…how to find an orca! Whatever your transportation mode, remember to bring your binoculars – they are your new best friend and everyone with you should have their own pair. There’s nothing more frustrating than having an orca breach while you’re waiting your turn for the binocs! The best time of year for sighting orcas is from spring through fall in the inland waters of the Salish Sea, which includes the Strait of George (between the top left corner of Washington and Canada’s Gulf Islands), the Strait of Juan de Fuca (between Washington’s Olympic National Park and the southern coast of Vancouver Island), the Puget Sound (the waterway around Seattle and its islands). They are also spotted in the channels and adjacent waters connecting these areas.
By land or by sea?
If you’re the adventurous type, take your own kayak, rent a kayak, or better yet, reserve a sea kayak or whale watching adventure tour from San Juan Outfitters. Their guides are top notch and are always in the know about where the orcas are hanging out.
Our two favorite tour companies (for jaunts on larger boats) are Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching for a small boat experience or San Juan Outfitters. Both have passionate and experienced onboard naturalists with a wealth of knowledge about the entire ecosystem, not just orcas. During a lull in the action, they will also point out other abundant wildlife in the Salish Sea: other whales, Dall’s porpoises, harbor porpoises, humpback whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles and more!
If you’re a landlubber, never fear! Here are our favorite shore locations to have an amazing orca experience:
Lime Kiln Point State Park is officially nicknamed “Whale Watch Park.” This title is no exaggeration—Lime Kiln State Park is one of the best places on earth to view migrating whales with your feet planted firmly on the ground. The shore of the park is composed of granite bluffs that jut into the sea. The water gets very deep very fast, allowing orcas and other whales to come astonishingly close to the water’s edge. Some scientists have speculated that the orcas use the steep face of the sea floor to trap schools of salmon for easy picking. From your perch atop these rock cliffs, you can often see pods of whales passing through the waters below. The interior of this 41-acre park is also provides excellent hiking. The historic lighthouse at the park dates back to 1919 and there are remains of the original lime kiln operation, which began in 1860 when the surrounding area was quarried for limestone.
San Juan Island National Historical Park is another beautiful location that sits at the southern tip of San Juan Island. It was the site of the island’s famous Pig War, a bloodless and short-lived conflict that erupted between British and American forces in the 19th century. Like Lime Kiln Park, the National Historical Park is also home to one heck of a lighthouse. The Cattle Point Lighthouse was constructed in 1935, and a navigational lantern hung in its place for almost fifty years beforehand. The lighthouse sits at one end of the park’s windswept plateau, and the vista of grassland and ocean is one of austere beauty. Walk along the bluff of the shore toward the lighthouse and you might see some sea lions on the gravel shore below. And if you keep your eyes peeled toward the sea, you might glimpse a breaching whale!
The Westside Scenic Preserve (a favorite local haunt not found in most guide books) and San Juan County Park (a 12-acre park on San Juan Island’s west side that is also great for launching kayaks) are two additional favorite places to pull out your binoculars.
If your San Juan Island excursion has made a whale fan of you, follow The Whale Trail, a site that provides the best tips to view commonly seen marine mammals along the pacific Coast of North America, from British Columbia to California. There is an interactive section where you’ll find recent orca sightings – a fantastic resource even before your trip!
If you don’t see any whales on your trip to San Juan Island (and remember, orcas are wild animals who don’t clock in), don’t fret – Friday Harbor has a great consolation prize for you. The Whale Museum here is home to everything orca, including the skeleton of the young orca Sooke, who died in 2012, but lives on in the museum’s reverent exhibit. There’s also a whale gallery, museum, and gift shop.
On San Juan Island, loving whales is part of our culture. We even have an event every year where we gather on the shore of Lime Kiln Park to serenade them! (Seriously—check out the Orca Sing each June!) Many of us islanders grew up whale watching from land, and it’s truly one of the best gifts the sea offers. Come join us!