The Adventure: Viewing Orcas in the San Juans

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June 24, 2016

Imagine watching the sunlight glint off the waters of the San Juan archipelago. Wind is the only sound; the gently rolling waves the only motion.

Suddenly, something catches your eye: the dark tip of a nose, the arc of a fin, a brief spray, the flick of a tail piercing the surface. All at once the sea roils with life as a pod of orcas cruise by.  A moment later, a large black-and-white shape bursts from the water, twisting and splashing as if in sheer joy.

Sound like a dream? Make it come true!

The Adventure...
Whale watching on Haro Strait is an unforgettable family adventure. Photo by Miles Ritter
Orcas of the Southern Resident Killer Whales J, K and L pods return to the San Juan waters starting in mid-May and hang around until September. You’ll find lots of great ways to watch whales this summer, both by land and sea.

Whatever your preferred way to watch, your San Juan Islands state parks’ shores and waters are prime places to experience these majestic animals. Since June is Orca Awareness Month, why not plan your encounter today!

By Land...

Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of San Juan Island has a reputation for being one of the best places in the WORLD to whale watch from land. Situated on a rocky point, the park overlooks Haro Strait where summer-fattened salmon attract the hungry pods.

Getting to  Lime Kiln Point takes a ferry ride, from Anacortes to Friday Harbor. Travel tip: Ferry reservations are not required, but they do guarantee you won’t miss the boat you want! Take your car or walk on. Once on the island, you’ll find transportation options, such as buses, shuttles and taxis, that will take you to the park.

Start your visit at the Lime Kiln Interpretive Center, built from an old Coast Guard garage. The interactive and interpretive displays touch on the facts about the famed whales as well as the park’s history as home to a lime-manufacturer and a still-active 98-year-old lighthouse. Sign up for tours and other interpretive programs, many offered by the Friends of Lime Kiln (FOLKS) volunteers.

Then get out and explore! You will definitely want your binoculars for this trip. Walk along the rocky shore to catch the pods at play. Don’t forget to look down, too! Tide pools make for fun exploration when you are not busy marveling at the passing minke whales, seals and orca. Fridays and Saturdays at 3 p.m., join retired Ripon College professor Dr. Bob Otis for a whale talk at the lighthouse. On Thursdays and Saturdays, you won’t want to miss watching the sun set over the Strait and Vancouver Island during an evening tour of the lighthouse.

By Sea…

See as far as the eye can spy—and still stay dry! Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island is a world-class destination for land-based orca and whale watching. Photo: Dale Musselman.
Do the spyhop! Watch orca watch you—from a safe distance, of course. Photo by Miles Ritter.
Go gliding with the giants! If you dream of seeing orcas by sea, kayaking is a popular way to explore the San Juan waters.
Safety first! When viewing any wildlife it is important to respect the animals by keeping your distance. Be whale wise! Do not position any watercraft in the path of a whale, and stay at least 200 yards away. Any closer looks should come through your binoculars or telephoto lens. And remember, the San Juan waters are cold and currents can get rough. Unless you are an experienced paddler, stick with a guide or tour service.

When you’re ready to get out on the water, there are a number of reputable outfitters—primarily based in Anacortes and Friday Harbor— to get you started on your kayaking adventure. Most offer half to full day trips for any ability level for ages six and up.
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Stay safe by being whale wise! Illustration by Be Whale Wise
Marine state parks in the San Juans offer water access only and make great stopping points for paddlers. Check out Jones and Posey Island marine state parks, both of which are on the Cascadia Marine Trail, one of Washington’s official aquatic “hiking paths,” which meanders through the Archipelago.

Find more sites along the Cascadia Marine Trail by downloading the Cascadia Marine Trail map.  You may even get to experience having a state park—and island—all to yourself while you watch pods of orcas breach and spyhop! Start planning your paddle trip today. Check out the Washington Water Trails Association website for resources, paddling tips and more.

Rather relax as you watch whales? Book a tour on one of the many boat-based whale watching excursions that range from small sailboats to large cruising vessels. Many of these will pass by Lime Kiln Point.
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Need more inspiration? Check out this incredible video shot at Lime Kiln Point State Park, by Traci Walter.

Want the latest news on Pacific Northwest orca sightings?

Visit the Orca Network website for photos, tracking tips, sighting reports and more!

Have a whale watching adventure story from a state park?

Share your photos and story with us to be featured on Adventure Awaits!

Feature photo of Orcas from Lime Kiln Point State Park by jc.winkler