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Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands, WA

Traveling has always been one of my passions. It exposes us to new cultures and experiences and makes the world a more tolerant place.

Orca in Haro Strait

Orca in Haro Strait

Tucked away in the northwestern corner of Washington state lies a group of islands that is a virtual paradise for the adventurous soul. Home to vast green forests, sparkling clear waters, and the unbridled scenery of the Pacific Northwest, this is perhaps the best land-based location on the planet for observing orca whales. The place is Lime Kiln State Park, located on San Juan Island, the namesake of the 172-island chain that occupies this northernmost portion of Washington State.

If you’ve never heard of the San Juan Islands, or if you think they must be in Puerto Rico, don’t fret. I suspect that unless you’ve been there before or live in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably never heard of the island chain.

Southern Resident Orcas

Southern Resident Orcas

Orca from Lime Kiln State Park

Orca from Lime Kiln State Park

San Juan Island

San Juan Island is the second-largest and the most populous of the San Juan Islands. Its main population center is also the only incorporated town on the island, Friday Harbor.

There is much to do on San Juan Island. You can rent a kayak and explore its coast. You can bring your bike over on the ferry or rent one and explore the island on two wheels. There are numerous hiking trails, a whale museum, a lavender farm and even an alpaca farm to explore.

But what brings most visitors to this island is the chance to see the eighty-plus orcas that make their summer home here. And the best spot to see these majestic creatures from land is to head to Lime Kiln State Park, otherwise known as “Whale Watch Park”. June through September is the prime whale-watching season here as the orcas patrol the waters of Haro Strait that separates the west coast of San Juan Island from Vancouver Island.

About the Whales

Most of the whales around San Juan Island are orcas but there are other species here as well including minke, grey and humpback whales. In addition to the whales, it is also possible to see porpoises, seals, sea lions, otters, bald eagles, and numerous other seabirds.

The three pods that account for the 80 plus orcas here belong to what is known as the “Southern Resident Whales”. This group of orcas is referred to as "resident" because they spend a significant time period each year in one location, here in the waters of Puget Sound around San Juan Island. The Southern Resident Whales can usually be seen patrolling the waters of Haro Strait and Puget Sound from mid-April through October but the best time to see them is June through September.

Interestingly, very little is known about the winter range and movement of the Southern Resident whales. The three pods are identified as the J-pod, K-pod, and L-pod. The different pods represent groups of whales that share a common maternal ancestor. To meet the whales up close and personal check out their web site.

Orca from Lime Kiln State Park

Orca from Lime Kiln State Park

As there are no guarantees that the whales will be right where you want them to be while you’re visiting Lime Kiln State park be sure to speak with the naturalist while you’re here to see if the whales are expected. If they are not, perhaps the naturalist can direct you to their current location around the island but during the summer months this is where they spend a good deal of their time so be patient.

The park is a beautiful spot to spend an afternoon be it watching the whales, exploring the tide pools, taking a hike, or simply having a picnic in a beautiful location.

Video taken from Lime Kiln State Park

You can always opt for a whale watching boat tour while on San Juan Island if you prefer. While this is certainly an option keep in mind that it will come at a price. For me there is nothing like knowing that the pod of whales is heading toward Lime Kiln Park and experiencing the anticipation and excitement of their arrival.

We've made the trip to Lime Kiln State Park on two occasions. Our routine has been the same; pack a lunch, drive to Anacortes, put the car on the ferry and head to Friday Harbor. We saw the whales on one of our visits and it was the highlight of our trip to Washington State. Hopefully the Whale Gods are smiling on you as you head to the San Juan Islands for a chance to see one of nature’s greatest shows.

Lime Kiln State Park

Spending a day at Lime Kiln Sate Park and having an opportunity to see a pod of orcas can be a great experience. The park has trails for hiking, picnic tables, a lighthouse, and usually a naturalist nearby to answer any questions you may have. So bring along that picnic basket, make sure you have your camera, and even bring the dog as long as they remain on a leash.

The lighthouse has a reader board where you can check to see when the whales were last in the area or simply ask the naturalist. They will usually know where the whales are located and what direction they are heading in. When the whales do arrive you will be amazed at how close they come to the shore, it really is a sight to behold. They are so close that you can actually hear them as they surface to breathe through their blowhole.

The park is also a great location for spotting bald eagles so be on the look out and bring your binoculars. Just a short hike south of Lime Kiln Park is a place called Dead Man’s Bay, which has a beautiful little cove with a pebble stone beach and tide pools. This is a great place if your traveling here with kids and exploring the tide pools can be great fun.

Lavender Farm

Lavender Farm

Lavender Farm

Alpaca Farm

Alpaca Farm

Getting to San Juan Island

Just getting to San Juan Island can be an adventure and is certainly part of the fun. The most common way to get here is to take the scenic ride on a Washington State Ferry from Anacortes. Anacortes is about a 90-minute ride north from Seattle and is the hub for ferry's heading throughout the San Juan Island chain. Visitors can take their cars or bikes onto the ferry if they choose and this eliminates the problem of how to get around once on the island.

There is also a summer passenger only ferry, the Victoria Clipper that provides service from downtown Seattle. To get to Lime Kiln State Park from Friday Harbor it is best if you have a car, bike or moped as the park is located on the far western side of the island approximately nine miles from Friday harbor and the ferry terminal. Another option for getting around the island is the San Juan Transit shuttle bus that can get you pretty much anywhere on the island.

Washington State Dept of Transportation Ferry Information and Schedules

San Juan Transit Bus

San Juan Islands

What better way to end the day than with a beautiful sunset from the ferry.

What better way to end the day than with a beautiful sunset from the ferry.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are you related to Guy? Also 10 days ago a pod of Orcas were in our bay of Wollochet in Gig Harbor. Fantastic for all the neighborhoods and respected boaters. One boater, 45 ft Bayliner motored right into the pod and possibly hit one. People were furious. We have pictures of the boat and the name and address of this person. Have called Wash. Dept of Fish and Wildlife and they don't seem to be able to do anything. Any suggestions from you?

Answer: I am not related to Guy, but I have a brother, Pat, in the Seattle area. There aren’t too many DeGiulio’s around so perhaps we are related somehow.

What a thrill to have a pod of Orcas in Gig Harbor, that is rare. If the Washington Dept of Fish and Wildlife does not act I would contact the National Marine Fisheries Service at 1-800-853-1964. If you have photos that really helps. I located a website, orcarelief.org and they have a section on their website specifically for reporting harassment of Orcas. Good luck. What a shame that one idiot has to ruin a wonderful viewing opportunity and endanger the pod.

© 2012 Bill De Giulio


Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on June 07, 2012:

Thank you Suzie. Very much appreciate you reading and commenting. It was amazing seeing them in their natural habitat. Washington state and the San Juan Islands in particular are just beautiful. Have a great day.

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on June 07, 2012:

Another gem!! Superb all the way, great photos, content and lots of really interesting facts.I would love to see the orca's "au natural" and this area looks beautiful. Amazing beautiful creatures, congrats again, Sharing, voting up and all the rest!!!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on June 03, 2012:

Thanks Mike, I know exactly what you mean. The day we saw the Orcas swim by we just sat there for hours watching them, it was amazing. Thank you for the votes. Have a great day.

Micheal from United Kingdom on June 03, 2012:

What a great hub on whale watching. I haven't been in the san juan islands, but I did see plenty when I was in Cape Town. I sat the whole day one time and just forgot about time altogether. Love the video's.

Voted up and 4/5 buttons

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on May 13, 2012:

Thanks Anne. Glad you enjoyed it. It's a beautiful area and seeing the whales is the icing on the cake. Thanks for stopping by.

Anne Pettit from North Carolina on May 13, 2012:

A great hub that is a good read for anyone before whale watching in the San Juan islands.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on May 13, 2012:

Thanks sgbrown & Jessica. It was a thrill to see them in their natural habitat. Plus, the San Juan Islands are just a great place to spend a day. Thanks for the vote and comments.

Just Ask Jess from Phoenix, Arizona on May 12, 2012:

I love whales, it is so interesting to see them in their natural world.

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on May 12, 2012:

This is an awesome hub! I have wanted to take a cruise to see the whales, but this sounds even better! It must be such a thrill to watch these huge animals in their natural habitat! Voted up, awesome and sharing on my hub! Have a wonderful day! :)

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on May 12, 2012:

Hi Peggy. Yes, the Whale Gods did finally shine down upon us. It was amzing to watch them swim by.

Linking them together, sure. Just let me know how to go about doing it. Thanks

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 12, 2012:

Great hub and so nice that the "Whale Gods" shined upon you. I have also written about the San Juan Islands and on our one and only trip, we did not luck out and get to see them. We took a tour of the island and saw various places in addition to the Lime Kiln State Park. Loved your photos! Voted up, useful, interesting and will share. Would you like to link our 2 hubs together?

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on May 09, 2012:

Thanks tipstoretireearly. Love the pen name. The San Juan Islands are a beautiful place and we never tire of going there. Thanks for stopping by.

tipstoretireearly from New York on May 08, 2012:

Beautiful photos of a very scenic area! Reading this Hub was like a mini-vacation.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on April 28, 2012:

Thanks BlossomSB. They certainly are amazing creatures. Appreciate the comments. Thanks for stopping by.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on April 28, 2012:

Wales are amazing creatures and your descriptions of them and of the islands is so interesting. You have so many lovely photos, too.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on April 28, 2012:

Thanks praseetio30. Beautiful spot in the pacific northwest for watching these amazing creatures. Maybe someday you'll have an opportunity to travel there. Thanks for reading and the vote up.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on April 27, 2012:

Wow..this was amazing tour and I am glad watching the whale from close range or I can touch it in a second. Thanks for writing and share with us. You have done a great job again. Vote up (useful, awesome, beautiful, interesting).


Robert Erich from California on April 26, 2012:

Yep, another place I will have to check out! I feel like I will learn much from your travels. Thanks for writing.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on April 18, 2012:

Hi there unknown spy. Thank you so much for the wonderful comments. It is an amazing place and the orcas are amazing creatures. Thanks again.

Life Under Construction from Neverland on April 18, 2012:

What can I say? This is so amazing, amazing and amazing. with all the details and info, great photos and video. wished i could go whale watching in San Juan islands too!!!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on April 15, 2012:

Thank You sharkfacts. I figured if anyone would enjoy this Hub it might be you. I think you would really enjoy a visit to the San Juan Islands. Very much appreciate the comments and vote up.

sharkfacts from UK on April 15, 2012:

What a wonderful hub! Great photos and you've managed to make me really want to visit the San Juan Islands to watch the whales. Voted up and awesome!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on April 15, 2012:

Thank you sandrabusby. Always trying to make the Hubs visually appealing. Appreciate the comments.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on April 15, 2012:

Thank you Billybuc. Words cannot describe my utter excitement and joy the first time I saw the orcas at Lime Kiln Park. It was truly an amazing experience. You have one beautiful state there!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 15, 2012:

As a native of Washington State I can attest to the beauty of the San Juan Islands and the thrill of seeing these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. Great hub!

Sandra Busby from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA on April 15, 2012:

Great hub. Like the graphics and images especially. Thanks for SHARING.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on April 15, 2012:

Thank You Lenzy. As always I appreciate your comments and support. I have family that lives in the Seattle area so we've made a number of trips out there. I have many other Hubs to publish on the Pacific Northwest. It's a beautiful part of the country.

Lenzy from Arlington, Texas on April 15, 2012:


I love your attention to detail. You always provide the little side items that are helpful to a trip such as ferry and bus schedules, who to talk to about where the whales might be and where the tide pools are for the kids. Great job. Lenzy

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