Discover San Juan Islands Whale Watching: A Portal to PNW Paradise

Photo: Scott Meis

Huff. Huff. Psshhhhhhh…

It’s the cavernous synchronous breathing that catches your ear. Other times, the glimmer of sun reflecting off a dorsal fin in the near distance. And then there is the graceful rise and fall of a pod moving in unison, slicing the chilly waters of the Salish Sea with each breath of fresh air. The tail slap signaling a playful hello.

In a blink of an eye, the mighty creature breaks through the water with a forceful burst of air, displaying striking and dramatic black and white markings…you know you are in the presence of our cherished orcas.

Impressive and fascinating creatures by any measure, there is a mystical quality that draws us to seek out these magnificent marine mammals that have occupied our waters for hundreds of years. A little known fact is that there are two types of orcas cutting through the Pacific Northwest’s waters. These two groups are quite different from each other, except in physical appearance. The local Residents stay close to the Puget Sound most of the time, are very social and family oriented and travel in three clans called J, K and L pods.

Even more elusive than the much sought-after Residents, are the other group of killer whales often found plying the protected San Juan waters, the Transients. Unlike the Residents, the Transients cruise up and down the Pacific coast and spend summers in the San Juan Islands. They lead a more solitary life, only forming groups when hunting for prey. While they share the same waters, the Residents and Transients do not intermingle. In fact, Resident orcas will chase Transients out of the area, leaving very few Transients in the area.

A pair of orcas rest in the Salish Sea's sapphire waters.
A pair of orcas rest in the Salish Sea’s sapphire waters.

With 25 years of experience in the San Juans, we have become experts on these magical mammals. Full of a wealth of information, onboard naturalists are with you the entire voyage, sharing their passion by shouting exuberantly as they sight the orcas. The naturalists are excellent ambassadors for the orcas, by teaching you about the life and habits of the killer whales. Long after you have gone on your trip, you will remember your experience with the whales and will want to ensure that they are protected, so that these captivating creatures will be around for several hundred more years.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be diving into a series of feature articles  about these special islands and their inhabitants. The series will give you an inside look at every step of the voyage. From the journey across the Salish Sea, to an up close and personal look at the real locals of the San Juans, to countless opportunities for exploration on the islands themselves. Be the first to know about future installments of our “Discover the San Juan Islands” articles as we unveil them, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and of course check back on Clipper Magazine.

Part 1: The Journey

Part 2: A Day Spent with the Real Locals

Part 3: Exploring Friday Harbor and San Juan Island

Clipper Recommends:

  • Stay overnight on San Juan Island and check out the many delicious restaurants, open air market or experience the great outdoors by bird watching, biking, beach-combing or hiking.

Book Your Whale Watching Trip Now


  1. When is the best time to see the Orca’s? New to the area from the East Coast. Please email me a response and thanks in advance. Rod

    • Hi Rod,

      Thanks for reaching out to us and welcome to the PNW!I just emailed you a response back, we look forward to having you along with us on one of our trips.



  2. Hey there ! I’ll be in the Seattle area in april, would that be a good time to spot some whales ?
    also I was wondering if you can see some on the “regular” ferry that takes you from Victoria to Seattle ?
    thanks a lot !

    • Hi Juls,

      Thanks for reaching out! Our orca whale watching trips to the San Juans don’t begin until May 19th, but April is a great time to catch gray whales on our day trip to Langley –, while they pass through town during their annul migration to Alaska. And, yes there is also a chance you could catch sight of orcas (and other sealife) while riding on our Victoria Clipper ferry between Seattle and Victoria. Please let me know if you have any other questions or if there’s anything else I can help you with.



  3. When is a good month to go see the whales in the San Juans? We just did the gray whale tour ,it was great we want to go on the San Juan tour now. You all were a great tour.

    • Hi Kerri,

      Glad to hear enjoyed our gray whale watching tour! The best time to see orca whales is from May through September, as this when we most often see orcas in our waters. Please let me know if you have any other questions, we look forward to having you onboard with us again!



  4. Hi ! I have visitors coming by 1st week of May. Some by mid of July. When is this trip ready?

    Hope to hear from you soon for my planning. My email add is



  5. Hi, we’re planning to visit the Puget Sound in the last week of september. Is that still a good time to spot orca’s?

    • Hi Theo,

      Great question! Yes, orcas are typically found in our waters from May through the end of September, so you still would have a chance of catching sight of them on our tour. Please let me know if there is anything else I can help you with. We look forward to seeing you onboard.



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