9 Tips for the Most Rewarding Whale Watching Experience on San Juan Island

San Juan Island is one of the top whale watching destinations in the world. Sometimes whales even frolic in the harbor of our little coastal town.  Other times, whales cross paths with the Washington State Ferry, the sweetest traffic delay you will ever experience. Most often, though, they are seen on the Westside of the island, where the water is very deep and full of nutrients. We islanders love them, we deeply respect them and we invite you to courteously observe the gentle giants while visiting our lovely island. Here are our tips to make your whale watching experience the most rewarding, considerate and fun:

  1. Begin at the Whale Museum

The Friday Harbor Whale Museum, across the street from our Bird Rock Hotel, is the only museum in the United States dedicated to a species living in the wild. It features breathtaking exhibitions, real whale skeletons, a whale adoption program, as well as countless educational and training programs for professionals, amateurs and kids. Visit there first to get a sense of place, knowledge about the history, habitat and challenges our Orcas are facing.You can also find out about the latest whale sightings around the island.

  1. Visit the Orca Survey Outreach and Education Center

Located just above/behind the Friday Harbor’s ferry lanes, you will find this comprehensive outreach center with exceptionally knowledgeable staff. Besides cool artifacts on display, they show otherwise unavailable movies on all things Orca on Monday nights and have virtual reality headsets available for you to experience Orcas from a research vessel, up-close and almost personal, in case you don’t get to see any actual Orcas on your trip.

So much wildlife to observe on San Juan Island


  1. Know Who’s Out There

The San Juan Islands are known for their Resident Killer Whales, a group of three whale families, who almost exclusively eat Chinook (King) Salmon. Both the Orca and the Salmon are on the endangered species list. Our Residents are struggling, their tribe has diminished to only 75 whales. Learn at the whale museum and the outreach center how you can help them.

Then there are the Biggs Killer Whales. They eat mammals and travel in small family groups. Due to the abundance of seals in the Salish Sea these folks are doing marvelous.

The Salish Sea has also experienced an enormous Humpback comeback. These whales migrate here from Hawaii and Mexico with their new babes in tow.

In addition, our waters are home to porpoises, who look like mini Orca, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, harbor seals, otters and about every seabird you have ever heard of.

  1. Know the Rules

Never touch, feed, disturb or swim with marine mammals. Please follow the Whale Wise guidelines when encountering marine mammals out at sea. Always stay at least 300 yards away from either side of orcas and 400 yards out of the Orca’s path. Slow down to 7 knots within ½ mile. When coming across whales from the water, always approach and depart from the side and move parallel to the direction of the animal’s travel.If the animal(s) are approaching you, cautiously move out of the way and avoid abrupt course changes.DO NOT approach from the front or behind.

  1. What to Bring

Whether you’ll look for whales from land or sea, always wear sunscreen, bring sunglasses and a hat. The sun shines strong on the Salish Sea, which can be deceiving on a cloudy day. And a jacket.While it is frequenty sunny on or near the island, it can be surprisingly chilly on the water. And don’t forget binoculars, or at least a camera, a picnic and water, time and patience.

  1. The Best Time

You can observe whales and other wildlife year-round on San Juan Island, with the best chances of sightings between May and October. There is no single time of day that is better than any other seeing them, they don’t operate on a schedule once they are here. However, you can check with the folks at the Whale Museum to find out where they are and where they are headed.

  1. Manage Your Expectations

Even though the Summer atmosphere on the island is fun and playful, please remember that you are visiting wild animals where they live. All of the whale watching tour providers that we work with not only adhere to the Whale Wise laws, but also give the Black Fish even more space and privacy than required. That’s why we love, trust and work with them. Unless you are on a beach and a whale comes swimming right up to you (extremely unlikely), you won’t see them very close. And there is a possibility that they’ll find food elsewhere and you won’t see them at all. Be okay with that. See it as a sign from the universe that you should return to the isle some other time.


8. Orca Search Guided Sea Kayak Tour

Experiencing the Salish Sea from a kayak feels so natural and serene. Our friends at San Juan Outfitters offer guided sea kayak tours out of Roche Harbor. They always have a naturalist guide and can tailor tours to your skill level. Treat yourself to a 5-hour Orca Search or the Westside Killer Whale Sanctuary tour for the best chances to see orcas.

9. Guided Whale Watching Tour

We see our whale watching tour providers as stewards of the sea. They are trained naturalists and educators, deeply invested in the well-being of our eco-system and tirelessly searching for ways to improve fuel efficiency and propeller noise from their vessels and awareness in general. Give us here at the Bird Rock Hotel a call today and we’ll help you find the whale watching tour perfect for you and yours.

Bird Rock Hotel Washington