How to See the Famous San Juan Islands Orcas

The San Juan Islands sit somewhat north and west of Seattle, nearly directly west of Bellingham, Washington. These large islands are known for a huge array of wildlife, and boat tours that range from guided kayaking to large sailing schooners. Because the breadth of wildlife, visitors are bound to see birds, mammals and fish—but the San Juan Orcas are the real draw for many.

The largest, and westernmost, island is called San Juan. To its north and east is Orcas Island, and to its south and east lies Lopez Island. These are only the larger islands in this huge inland waterway that stretches from Seattle to far north of Vancouver, and makes up the first leg of the Alaskan ferry trip.

The San Juan Island Orcas: Seasonality 

A pod of San Juan Island orcas swim in the ocean.

San Juan Islands orcas are usually active between April and October, although in March and November the odds of spotting one of these giant black and white whales are about fifty-fifty. Weather in March and April, and again in October and November, is a bit less reliable, with greater chance of storms, so most tourists choose May-September for whale watching. If you prefer smaller crowds, earlier or later in the season is recommended.

Charter boats range from semi-private sailing tours that visit dozens of the islands in this huge channel, to large day excursions that are much more affordable. 

If you aren’t a fan of boating, however, you can take a trip on the “whale trail” by driving and hiking along the shores. The whale trail follows the whole west coast, but in the San Juan Islands it largely consists of a whale museum (a great place to start, since learning about San Juan Island Orcas makes you appreciate them all the more), San Juan County Park, Lime Kiln Point State Park, and American Camp.

The Whale Museum describes the two pods of orcas found nearby: the endangered Southern Residents (or, pods labeled J, K and L), and the whales that come and go through these feeding grounds—the Bigg’s orcas. This region is also seeing a comeback of the once endangered Humpback whale.

The San Juan Island Orcas: Other Attractions

An orca breaches near the San Juan Islands.

San Juan County Park is a state park with limitless camping opportunities, and it’s a great place to launch a kayak. The kayak route will take you along the western shore of San Juan Island, and camping anywhere along the shore provides amazing views of Vancouver Island, and the wildlife viewing includes porpoises, a variety of large sea birds, and harbor seals. The tidal pools are pristine, and you may spot San Juan Islands orcas from here. If you prefer to stay on land, a walk in this area is still a great way to explore tide pools and view wildlife along the shore.

Lime Kiln is another Washington State Park, and is one of the best places to see San Juan Island orcas from shore because of their nearby feeding grounds. Similarly, American camp is where the whales often arrive and depart from the straight of Juan de Fuca to the open ocean. Salmon Bank lies on the south end of San Juan Island, and is a rich feeding ground for orcas.

The best way to see San Juan Island orcas is by boat, and the possibilities for boat rental are nearly endless. Whether a self-guided kayak tour, or a charter for the family—any whale watcher will want to take to the open waters to catch a glimpse of the San Juan Island orcas cresting the waves. If you're headed out on a water adventure, be sure to bring along the right gear for the job. Red Ledge's free rein jacket and the thunderlight are both 100% waterproof, with the packability and durable shell to last you through your entire trip.