Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands, WA

Updated on February 15, 2018
bdegiulio profile image

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

Orca in Haro Strait
Orca in Haro Strait | Source

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 place.

Southern Resident Orcas
Southern Resident Orcas | Source
Orca from Lime Kiln State Park
Orca from Lime Kiln State Park | Source

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 know 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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Have a picnicThe LighthouseExplore the coastCheck out the tide pools
Have a picnic
Have a picnic | Source
The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse | Source
Explore the coast
Explore the coast | Source
Check out the tide pools
Check out the tide pools | Source

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, seal 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.

The Southern Resident Whales are currently considered endangered and as such are protected under the Endangered Species Act. This group is one of only two groups of orcas currently afforded protection under federal law. This status is based on recent declines in their population numbers and to threats that they face in the decline of their primary food source, Chinock salmon. Current theories also point to high toxicity levels in the whales due to their position at the top of the food chain.

Orca from Lime Kiln State Park
Orca from Lime Kiln State Park | Source

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

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Lavender FarmAlpaca Farm
Lavender Farm
Lavender Farm | Source
Alpaca Farm
Alpaca Farm | Source

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Washington State FerryView from the ferry of Mt. Baker, North Cascade NP.
The Washington State Ferry
The Washington State Ferry | Source
View from the ferry of Mt. Baker, North Cascade NP.
View from the ferry of Mt. Baker, North Cascade NP. | Source

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. | Source
show route and directions
A markerSan Juan Island -
San Juan Islands, Washington, USA
get directions

B markerLime Kiln State Park -
Lime Kiln Point State Park, 1567 Westside Rd, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
get directions

C markerFriday Harbor -
Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
get directions

D markerAnacortes -
Anacortes, WA, USA
get directions

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Bill De Giulio

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      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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.

      • Suzie HQ profile image

        Suzanne Ridgeway 6 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

        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!!!

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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.

      • molometer profile image

        molometer 6 years ago from United Kingdom

        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

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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 profile image

        Anne Pettit 6 years ago from North Carolina

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

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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.

      • JessicaSmetz profile image

        Just Ask Jess 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

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

      • sgbrown profile image

        Sheila Brown 6 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

        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! :)

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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 W profile image

        Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

        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?

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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 profile image

        tipstoretireearly 6 years ago from New York

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

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

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

      • BlossomSB profile image

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

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

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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 profile image

        prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

        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).

        Prasetio

      • Robert Erich profile image

        Robert Erich 6 years ago from California

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

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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.

      • unknown spy profile image

        IAmForbidden 6 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

        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!!!

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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 profile image

        sharkfacts 6 years ago from UK

        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!

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

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

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 6 years ago from Olympia, WA

        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!

      • sandrabusby profile image

        Sandra Busby 6 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

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

      • bdegiulio profile image
        Author

        Bill De Giulio 6 years ago from Massachusetts

        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 profile image

        Lenzy 6 years ago from Arlington, Texas

        Bdegiulio,

        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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