Whale Watching In The San Juan Islands

Post Summary: A Guide To Whale Watching In The San Juan Islands, Washington

A few weeks ago, Berty and I went with Clipper Vacations to experience the Salish Sea, go whale watching, and explore Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands. This was a day full of firsts for both of us!

I had never been to Friday Harbor, and was our first time going to the Puget Sound for whale watching season!

If you’re curious about what to expect whale watching in the San Juan Islands, we’re here to share all the details!

Whale Watching In The San Juan Islands

The Victoria Clipper Ferry does day-trips to Friday Harbor and back, searching the sea for whales and other marine life around the San Juan Islands.

In the afternoon, we got off the boat to explore Friday Harbor for a few hours. We started our trip at 7am, and returned to downtown Seattle at 7pm the same day!

Berty and I were excited to go on this Seattle whale watching day trip. Neither of us had been out on the Salish Sea, let alone whale watching! We couldn’t have thought of a better way to enjoy this sunny Seattle day.

The Clipper boat had everything we would need: coffee (the most important part, if I’m being honest), breakfast and lunch, and three decks for full 360 viewing!

They also provided us with informational booklets with everything we needed to know about the Puget Sound. This included what kinds of marine life live here, the names of all the islands, our route for the day, and descriptions of all the whales we could see!

Map Route of the San Juan Islands

I’m a giant sucker for maps, so pretty much the entire two-hour ride I was sucked into my whale watching guidebook. I busied myself looking out the window trying to identify the blobs of land and small towns we passed along the route.

Until this day, the Salish Sea always looked like a huge cluster of unidentified islands – now I could finally put islands and names together, which was really exciting. It was like opening up a whole new world of possibilities, and it was so close to where Berty and I live!

Read More: 10 Most Photogenic Places In Washington State


Deception Pass Bridge

One of the highlights of the 2-hour ride north was going through Deception Pass. Deception Pass was named by explorer George Vancouver. He was misled into thinking it was a safe and calm bay near Whidbey Island (which they also thought was a peninsula).

Huge wind gusts channel right into this passageway, making it always windy and the waters swirling and churning in every direction. Not really a place to sit and relax, but it’s fun to see nonetheless!

Related: See an Engagement Shoot That Berty Took At This Bridge!


Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands

After a two-hour bo,at ride we made our first stop in Friday Harbor.

Friday Harbor is the major commercial town in the cluster of islands known as the San Juan Islands (which include Orcas Island, Shaw, Blakely, Decatur, Lopez, Stuart, Waldron, and Spieden Islands). They also have a commuter boat that transports people from island to island for free!

San Juan Islands, Washington Map
Image Courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Juan_Islands

There are a lot of activities to do in and around Friday Harbor.

Not only are there delicious restaurants and breweries right off the docks, but gift and antique shops as well. Berty and I found an ice cream shop and strolled around the commercial streets for a good hour or so.

If you’re looking for a little more adventure, you can rent bikes and mopeds to get out of the town center and explore the island. Here, you can go kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, and paddleboarding, just to name a few. You can even hit a few balls at the San Juan Golf & Tennis Club, or check out the Pelindaba Lavender Farm!

Berty and I quickly decided that we needed to come here again, next time at least for a weekend!


Whale Watching In The San Juan Islands

After a few hours of exploring Friday Harbor, we got back on the boat to search for whales in the Puget Sounds. There was an onboard Naturalist (aka marine life expert) who knew about all the animals who lived in the San Juan Islands.

She had her binoculars out the entire time and would point out seals on the shore and porpoise heads popping above the water. By the end of the cruise, everyone on board felt like a little team – we all kept our eyes peeled and shouted out if we saw anything move!

Read More: 101 Adventurous Things To Do In The Pacific Northwest

The Naturalist told us to watch for “bait clusters” or “bait balls” like the one in the picture below. She informed us that bait clusters happen when predators chase little fish up to the surface, visible enough for birds to notice from the air.

Hoping to catch a bite, the birds sit right above the fish and many gather to get in on the action. For whale watchers like us in the Northwest, this means humpback whales, orca whales, and porpoises (among many others!) should be near.

These are the times when the entire boat of people is staring out into the sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fin or a spout pop above the surface of the water.

Turns out that during this trip, the whales weren’t that active!

Bummer for us. But even though we didn’t see any whales, we saw lots of porpoises (like the tiny heads popping up in the picture above!) and we learned valuable lessons on how to look for them.

Clipper Vacations also has a policy: if you don’t see any whales on your trip, you get another for free – to book anytime!

Next time we come out with them to the Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands, we’ll check the whale sightings to find out when they are most active! If you have your own boat, or want to know where the nearest Orca and whale sighting are, check out this website that’s frequently updated with the latest sightings as well.

Thank you Clipper Vacations for hosting us on this fun day out in the San Juan Islands! 

Have you ever been Whale Watching In The San Juan Islands? What was your favorite part? Let us know in the comments below!


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