When our friends J & M visited from the East Coast this Fall, they shared that what they wanted more than anything else, was to see Orca whales in the wild. We knew exactly what to plan: a San Juan Island getaway with a whale watching tour.
We always stay at the Bird Rock Hotel in Friday Harbor. We love the modern décor of this historic hotel and the fact that it is in the heart of cute Friday Harbor, with restaurants, shops and the waterfront just steps away. It’s like staying in your rich brother’s house without the family drama. For the four of us, we opted for the Bainbridge Suite, a two-bedroom suite with fireplace in the cozy living room and a two person jetted tub in the bathroom. Heaven.
We booked a classic whale watching tour on the Sea Lion boat with San Juan Safaris (located just a block from our hotel). While it is not uncommon to see Orca whales in Fall, those magnificent giants are wild animals and not on our schedule. I knew we would see amazing wildlife, like Steller sea lions, migrating water fowl, maybe a Humpback, and I kept my fingers crossed for Orcas.
The Sea Lion is a lovely boat with a heated cabin and a head (that’s “boat” for “toilet”) and a wrap-around deck. Naturalists, Kelly and Laura, and Captain Eric got us situated and off we went along the whale highway rounding the south end of San Juan Island in the company of seals and Harlequin ducks.
And then we saw Orcas.
Our lovely friends shrieked with delight and parked themselves on the bow of the boat. The mood on the boat shifted to excited chatter. We saw two male Biggs killer whales, traveling together, which is a bit unusual. Male Biggs travel up to 150 miles per day. Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family. Kelly identified them as Nielsen (T49C born in 1998) and Jude (T49A2 born in 2007). Uncle and nephew traveling together. We stayed with them for a lovely while.
A Minke whale surfaced. Laura explained that we don’t know much about these smallest of the "great whales" or rorquals. Minkes are here in Summer, gone in Winter and we never see any babies.
Soon a school of Dall’s Porpoises splashed by. They look like tiny Orcas and can travel up to 30 knots.
Going back to Friday Harbor, we stopped at "Whale Rocks", the local hangout for the intensely large Steller Sea Lions located just a few miles south east of town. Males get up to 2,400 pounds! We could hear them loudly hollering and roaring. We could also smell them...Oh dear. Kelly shared that Stellers usually migrate south, but they are starting to spend the Winters here. She thinks they might be starting a colony right here at Whale Rocks.
San Juan Safaris gives part of their proceeds to wild salmon restoration. They raised $30,000 last year to help the endangered Southern Resident orcas, who mostly dine on Wild King salmon and are starving due to the lack of fish.
San Juan Safaris offers classic and adventure whale watching tours from March through October.