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Whale Watching for Orcas in the San Juan’s

Written by Anna Maria de Freitas, owner of the San Juan Island Inn Collection

The San Juan Islands are home to resident and transient killer (orca) whales. While they are both apex predators and members of the same species, they are quite different. The southern resident killer whales (SRKW) feed exclusively on salmon. They remain in and around the nearby coastal waters of Washington and British Columbia. The residents eat Chinook or “king” salmon, a large, calorie-rich food source. Chinook numbers are dwindling and the remaining 75 animals of the SRKW family are on the federal endangered species list. Since 2015, the Southern Residents haven’t produced offspring that have lived two years. Last summer, J-35 (nicknamed Tahlequah), a 20-year-old mother, grieved while carrying her dead baby for 17 days. Her plight mobilized the entire nation. 

The “transients” feed on marine mammals. These huge hunters move north and south along the coast from Southeast Alaska and to Southern California. They frequently make forays into the Salish Sea surrounding the San Juan Islands. Their population is thriving due to the abundance of seals, sea lion, skate, octopus and porpoise, which make up the mainstays of their diet. 

chef ryan from coho whale watching The Fight for the SRKWs

Saving the SRKW from extinction is a complex issue with profound economic and political ramifications. Scientists agree that the number one factor causing the decline of the species is lack of food. Breeching dams, reducing vessel traffic, fishing moratoriums and go-slow and no-go zones around critical habitat waters are all much-discussed solutions. These solutions all have one common denominator, salmon. Dams have impacted critical habitat for salmon spawning. Increased vessel traffic prohibits their ability to echolocate (use their sonar) for hunting. Over-fishing harvests impact their available food source. Too often, each stakeholder deflects the solution to another interest group. At the end of the day saving the SRKW requires a holistic approach, supported by the best available science. 

Increased commercial shipping, pleasure boating, and navy sonar testing have made the Salish Sea a noisy environment. Critics even point to vessel noise from whale watching boats as an impactful activity. Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s Orcas Task Force studied the long-term survival of the SRKW. This working group made up of regional killer whale biologists, fish biologists, acousticians, whale watch operators, commercial fisherman, and local tribes looked at holistic solutions for the long-term survival of the SRKW. Their final report, published in December 2018, detailed a number of recommendations and areas for further study. 

The Orca Task Force

The task force’s recommendations were included in Washington SB (Senate Bill) 5577 recently signed into law this spring. This bill represents mainstream consensus positions on vessel issues, and allows for responsible viewing, conservation, education, and adaptive management into the future. This position represents a balance between business and sustainability. This bill increases commercial whale watch viewing distance for SRKW from 200 to 300 yards in an attempt to reduce noise around the animals. Viewing transient mammal-eating orca whales within 200 yards is still permissible. 

Ken Balcomb from the Center for Whale Research has studied the SRKW population for more than 40 years. “This may be the last generation that gets to see these whales,” Balcomb said. In 1995 the clan had 98 animals. “Many of the females will soon be too old to reproduce,” he explained. “Their reproductive life is about 25 years. Orcas have a gestation period of 15 to 18 months, which means mothers can give birth only every three to five years.” “We’ve wasted 20 of those years having meetings and conference calls and writing reports and wringing our hands.”

The Importance of Whale Watching Operators

orca whales in the san juans The SRKW travel a 35 square mile area around the Salish Sea and the local waters around the San Juan Islands. Scientists rely on local whale watch operators to provide up-to-date information about animal sightings, births, general health, pregnancy, and boat harassment. Whale watch operators are on the water every day and are sought out by scientists and law enforcement to learn what’s happening on the water.  Whale watch operators also educate the tourists on their boats about the plight of the SRKW, the fragile ecosystem in which they live, and best practices to protect the waters on our planet.  

The Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) represents 28 whale watch operators in both the US and Canada. PWWA members have a strong conservation ethic and are committed to supporting efforts to help our Southern Resident Killer Whales, as well as salmon recovery and habitat conservation efforts. Their professional captains and naturalists, along with their owners, are passionate, dedicated, and educated professionals who are all concerned about the health and plight of the SRKW. This year PWWA members have pledged to not watch the Southern Residents when other options are available. They will continue to bring attention to the plight of the SRKW and Chinook salmon of the Salish Sea.

Keeping “Eyes on the Water”

The PWWA executive team has also developed a new whale sightings app that will be used to provide data to the scientific community, the general public, and regional and national government agencies. The “eyes on the water” effort of the PWWA community provides an unprecedented amount of real-time information for enforcement and the scientific community. 

Guests who have been on whale and wildlife expeditions view their experience on the water as life changing. Many return year after-to-year to encounter these majestic creatures. They take home valuable lessons about sustainable practices and often change their behaviors and lifestyles. They become spokespersons for change within their local communities. 

Seeing orca whales in the wild is a bucket list item for many that visit San Juan Island. What is the best time for whale watching? Are whales guaranteed? Who is the best boat/operator we should use? What tour(s) welcome children? What is the best boat for guests with a walker? Is there a marine head onboard? Will I get seasick? These are just some of the questions guests ask when choosing their whale watching adventure tour.

Getting Out There!

Let a San Juan Island Inn Collection’s concierge take out all the guess-work. They will recommend a boat and tour matched to you – whether you’re an adventure junkie wanting the wind whipping through your hair or a relaxing trip in a temperature-controlled salon with padded bench seats, they’ll match you up. Our preferred vendors practice responsible whale watching so you will view both transient and residents without impact. Here is a thumbnail matrix of the whale watching operators and the type of experiences that they offer.

Outfitter Name of Boat Boat Capacity Vessel Type Boat Features Recommendations Departure
San Juan Safaris

Sea Lion


Single hull

55’ boat with roomy heated salon with padded seats, coloring books and spacious marine head Families with small children or those that prefer a bit of creature comfort Friday Harbor Marina
Western Prince

Western Explorer II


“Zodiac type”

40-foot vessel with low noise water jets; basic marine head High speed adventure vessel for those over 7.  Not recommended for pregnant women or those with back or neck injuries. Guests where all-weather exposure suits. Friday Harbor Marina
San Juan Safaris



“Zodiac type”

35-foot vessel with basic marine head High speed adventure vessel for those over 8 years old. Not recommended for those with back or neck injuries or pregnant women; guests wear all weather exposure suits. Friday Harbor Marina

Maya’s Legacy Charters

J1 & J2


“Zodiac type”

Passenger vessel enclosed and basic marine head High speed adventure vessel for those over 8 years old. Not recommended for those with back or neck injuries or pregnant women Snug Harbor and Friday Harbor
Maya’s Legacy Charters




Small intimate boat; basic marine head Available for full day trips and private charters Friday Harbor
San Juan Excursions



1941 converted US Navy Search and Rescue Boat

Large boat experience Full galley and salon; ideal for a private charter or reception Friday Harbor


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