Moby Who?

Guide to Whale Watching in Washington

It's not just about our local orcas anymore.

By Allison Williams April 19, 2024

Not ready for their close-up: San Juan Safaris staff remind passengers that because they follow regulations on keeping proper distance from each species, great photos require a zoom telephoto lens.

"This is one of the only times it's accurate to yell, 'Thar she blows!'" That's the advice from EJ Tilt, the naturalist aboard the Puget Sound Express catamaran as we depart for a day of whale watching. And in the Salish Sea, the whales blow a lot.

Whale watching is our ultimate out-of-towners activity, but even locals can chase the thrill of spotting sea life in the wild. Here's what you need to know about the Washington version of a safari.

Only Clipper Vacations operates whale watching trips that depart from Seattle.

Where to Go Whale Watching

While the bulk of local boats depart from in and around the San Juan islands, a few launch closer to the city.

Clipper Vacations, best known for its passenger ferry service to Victoria, BC, starts at Pier 69 with daily whale watching from May to September with limited routes in April and through October.

Puget Sound Express leaves from docks right next to the Edmonds Ferry Terminal, a relatively short drive from downtown; they also shove off from Port Townsend during summer months.

• Anacortes—close to the San Juans, but on the mainland—is home to several companies, including Outer Island Excursions (which also sends boats out of Orcas and Lopez Islands) and Island Adventures (who has one of the region's longest seasons, February to November).

• From the middle of the Salish Sea, the San Juan Islands are understandably home to many operations. San Juan Safaris, led by 25-year veteran Brian Goodremont, has boats that range from double-decker cruisers with plenty of heated indoor space to speedy Zodiacs that require guests to wear protective suits as they zip across the Sound. Sister company San Juan Outfitters does sea kayak–based trips.

San Juan Excursions operates out of a converted 1941 naval search and rescue vessel, while Western Prince Whale and Wildlife Tours can package their Zodiac boat trips with a floatplane ride from Seattle. 

While companies differ in capacity or onboard catering, most work together to share spottings. Members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association commit to a conservation-minded outlook and to following the legal regulations around how close they can get to the animals; they don't focus tours on the endangered southern resident killer whales (more on them below). The list of member operators is a good place to start for reputable operations or info on those legal distances.

Land lovers: mother and yearling Bigg's orcas hunt along the shoreline.

What Whales Can You See in Puget Sound?

In Seattle, when we think "whale," we usually mean "orca." But local whale watching isn't actually about spotting our famed southern resident killer whales, the three pods of salmon-eating cetaceans that were decimated first by capture in the 1970s (including the late Tokitae, or Lolita) and then by dwindling fish populations. Washington state laws limit viewing of the SRKW to only a few hours a day, only a few boats at a time, and only during a few months of the year; in 2025 the legal viewing distance will stretch to 1,000 yards, a nautical half mile away.

So does that mean an end to orca spotting? Not at all, considering that Bigg's killer whales are now a common sight in our waters. Once known as transients, these orcas spend a lot of time in the Salish Sea, with individuals as recognizable to boat captains as the SRKWs. Bigg's whales eat marine mammals like seals and porpoises, and their population—a few hundred frequent Puget Sound—is growing at 4 percent per year.

Newly suspected to be distinct species, the two crews don't really mix. "I think of the southern residents like bats, constantly echolocating for their food in the middle of the Sound," says Tilt while we bounce across Possession Sound. "While Bigg's are like wolves hunting along the shore."

Plus, in 1990 a new group of sea mammals discovered us: gray whales. That year two individuals, dubbed Shackleton and Earhart, took a Puget Sound detour during their migratory path from Mexico to Alaska; now about two dozen gray whales known as the Sounders pop by every spring. Humpback sightings have increased by leaps and bounds since 2000, and even Minke whales pop up sometimes. As naturalist Tilt puts it, on a good day you can find yourself in "whale soup."

Land-based whale watching from Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island.

When to Go Whale Watching

Given the variety of cetaceans to be spotted, there is at least one boat scouting the waters most months of the year. Gray excursions are often scheduled in spring, while summer sees the most activity—mostly because it's the best weather for hanging outside. Land-based whale watching can happen any time of year; social media has helped spread word quickly when an animal appears near a waterfront neighborhood.

What to Bring Whale Watching

Whether in a tiny boat or giant vessel, traveling Washington waters is all about layers. Even the sunniest of days can feel chilly when winds pick up, so most operators suggest a good coat, shoes that won't slip on wet boat decks, and hats for sun protection. Loaner binoculars may be provided, but it's BYO long camera lens for the hero shots of surfacing animals.

Thar she...rolls? A humpback breaches near the San Juan Islands.

Will There Be Whales?

It's the million dollar question—or rather the $100–200 question, given the usual price of a whale watching trip. Since companies radio each other to share information about wildlife locations, the success rate for Washington tours is high; most operators put it around 90 percent in their high season. And even when the whales only appear at a distance, there are usually seals, sea lions, porpoises, and sea birds to view up close.

Some companies offer a guarantee, which generally means they'll issue a voucher for a free or highly discounted second trip if whales don't show. Still, getting the glamour pose of Shamu breaching into sun-kissed waters is a long shot; Washington whale watching is best appreciated as a chance to see the Salish Sea from a new angle, with a good chance of a "thar she blows" off the port bow.

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