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What Time Do the Whales Come By?

T19B, "Old Floppy Fin," at Cooper's Reef. Photo courtesy of Jim Maya, Maya's Whale Watch
T19B, “Old Floppy Fin,” at Cooper’s Reef. Photo courtesy of Jim Maya, Maya’s Whale Watch

“What time do the whales come by?” It’s a question we hear almost daily in the summer months.

Yes, at first it seems rather ludicrous; obviously the whales don’t check in with us on their schedule. But we know what people really mean when they ask this question. They want to know if there is a general time of the day/week/month/year when whales have been spotted off the west coast of San Juan Island. The answer is perhaps not as succinct as they would like, but we’ll take a stab at it.

First off, Orcas have been spotted year-round in the surrounding waters. It may take a fast boat to get to them, but they are definitely here. There are two whale watch companies that operate year round, Legacy Charters, and Maya’s Whale Watch; both have small, fast boats that depart from the west side and get you out where the whales are. San Juan Island Whales also operates year round, leaving conveniently from Friday Harbor if you don’t have a car; this boat is not quite as fast, and there may be a minimum number of people required to run the tour. The whales they are viewing in the cooler months are usually Transients, the mammal-eating pods; our Southern Residents, who only eat fish, are typically off in other waters somewhere, though they have been spotted every month of the year.

For viewing from shore, the Land Bank West Side Preserve and Lime Kiln State Park are the spots to hang out and wait for whales. It’s the Southern Residents we usually see, because they are chasing after the salmon that run these waters. If the whales are going to be close enough to see well from shore, it’s typically in late spring through early Fall. As for the time of day, we’ve mostly been fortunate to catch them early morning and late afternoon. Of course, there are no guarantees; they day we show up in the later afternoon, we might find we’ve missed them by hours. But the good thing is, these are both lovely spots; bring a picnic, relax and enjoy the fresh salt air and beautiful scenery.

June is Orca Awareness Month, probably named so because this is when we really start seeing them on a daily basis, whether it be near shore or out in the straits.

Recently there have been a record number of Humpback sightings, particularly in the Friday Harbor area. While you probably won’t see them from the docks, you might be lucky enough to catch sight of one from the ferry, and you would definitely see one from a whale watch boat if they’re in the area. In the past, it was rare to see a Humpback around here, but they seem to be making a comeback, perhaps recognizing that these waters are safe and somewhat protected. Every whale watch tour operator has seen them this spring and summer season, and they’ve been quite active with breaching and tail slapping.

Whether it’s Orcas or Humpbacks, there is nothing as spectacular as seeing a whale in the wild do a full breach; it is sheer exuberance and joy. You cannot see these magnificent creatures and not be awed by their graceful beauty and serenity.

So now’s the time. Come watch the whales!

Humpback Photo by Kevin Culmback, Courtesy of San Juan Safaris
Humpback Photo by Kevin Culmback, Courtesy of San Juan Safaris




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