How to Spend a Day with the Real Locals: 7 Tips from Whale Watching Pros

Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist

It’s only a month into spring but after a record-setting cold and wet winter, we can’t blame you if you’re eager to go explore the outdoors. Since getting a taste of sunshine last week, it seems all of Seattle is counting down the days until blue skies and clear waters are upon us.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the Salish Sea explodes to life each May with an abundance of wildlife. Playful minke whales, majestic humpbacks and, yes, our beloved orca pods, are all within reach with a scenic Seattle to San Juan Islands whale watching adventure.

Seattle Whale Watching

For expert advice and tips on how to maximize your time “whale” you’re out on the water, we’ve asked our expert onboard naturalist Justine Buckmaster to shed some light on the best time to go, what whales you’ll encounter and what behaviors to watch out for to help you spot the animals.

Q: What kind of wildlife will I see?

A: The whale species we most often encounter on our trips include minke whales, humpback whales and two different types of killer whale or orca: our local resident orcas (which feed on salmon) and roaming transient orcas (which feed on marine mammals).  

We also often see harbor porpoise and Dall’s porpoise, which are different from the Pacific White-sided dolphins we occasionally encounter. Steller sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles and tufted puffins are among the many other animals that call the Salish Sea home.

A transient baby orca and mother take breath at the surface before diving back into the Salish Sea. Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist
A transient baby orca and mother take a breath at the surface before diving back into the Salish Sea. Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist

Q: When is the best time to go? 

A: This depends on which type of whales you are most interested in viewing, as different species and subspecies have different habits and travel to Washington waters to feed on different food sources.

Generally speaking, May/June through early fall is best time to see minke whales and humpback whales as they return to the Salish Sea to feed on spawning herring. Transient orcas are also common spring visitors as they hunt other marine mammals that feed on herring.

With this much water in your backyard, you never know what you might see aboard a Clipper whale watching trip.
With this much water in your backyard, you never know what you might see aboard a Clipper whale watching trip.

Summer through early fall is a great time to view resident orcas as they follow Chinook salmon to the rivers where the salmon spawn. You’ll also have a good chance of encountering transient orcas, as they follow the sea lions that visit during that time to feed on a variety of fish.

Keep in mind that these are general guidelines and that these wild and unpredictable animals often surprise us! Every day on board is a new adventure and we never know exactly what awaits us each day in the Salish Sea!

Q: What whale behaviors should I watch for? 

A: Orcas show a wide variety of behaviors that serve different purposes in their daily lives. Ranging from playful to tactful, these performances are telltale behaviors to watch for when looking for orcas in the Salish Sea:

  • Spyhopping: When a whale lifts its head above the water, presumably to view what’s at the surface. 
Orca whales. Photo Courtesy of Five Star Whale Watching
An orca peeks above water to get a look at its surroundings. Photo: Five Star Whale Watching
  • Tail lobbing: When a whale slaps its tail or flukes on the surface, often repeatedly. This is thought to be a form of communication between whales or a means of stunning prey.
  • Breaching: When a whale leaps out of the water head first, often landing on its back or side, making a loud splash. Breaching is thought to be a form of communication and play between whales.
An orca soars out of the water with a mighty breach. Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist
An orca soars out of the water with a mighty breach. Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist
  • Cartwheel: An upside-down breach! This is when a whale throws its flukes and lower body out of the water from one side to the other, usually keeping the head submerged. Cartwheels are likely a form of play, similar to breaching.

These are just a few of the exciting behaviors we may see from both resident and transient orcas!

Q: How do I get a good shot of the whales?

A: This can be very tricky, and often comes down to luck. Whales are surprisingly quick and only surface for a few seconds at a time. To increase the chances of a good shot, I usually zoom out from the whale at first and watch through the camera to get an idea of how quickly it moves from one side of the frame to the other. Then I zoom in to focus on the whale and try to point my camera ahead of where it last dove, aiming where it will most likely surface next based on its speed.

An orca cruises past the San Juan Clipper as the sun sets on the Salish Sea.
An orca cruises past the San Juan Clipper as the sun sets on the Salish Sea.

A fast shutter speed helps capture the whale in motion, so once the whale appears in my view finder, I just hold down the button until the whale is out of view again. This results in a lot of photos, so having either a very large memory card or multiple backups is key to not missing any of the action.

Keeping your camera steady can be tricky on a moving boat so a monopod may be used help reduce motion blur for a clearer photo. I usually recommend a monopod over a tripod since whales sometimes surprise us by appearing somewhere we weren’t expecting. Monopods tend to be light and mobile, allowing you to quickly change positions if need be. They also don’t take up too much space in your bag or on deck.

You are sure to catch some "killer" whale shots out on the Salish Sea. Photo: Vadym Graifer
You are sure to catch some “killer” whale shots out on the Salish Sea. Photo: Vadym Graifer

Any more tips on photographing the whales?

Last year we were happy to have photographer Victoria Wright aboard one of our whale watch excursions, and she snapped some incredible shots! As a professional photographer, we asked her to share some tips on how to take “killer” whale photos.

Q: Where are the best spots aboard the San Juan Clipper to catch a glimpse of the whales?

A: Outside! Come prepared with a windbreaker so you can be out on the deck for a while and quickly move to the side of the San Juan Clipper closest to the whales. Plus, if you are trying to snap a photo, you won’t have to fight any glare from the windows. 

The San Juan Clipper's three viewing decks allow plenty of opportunities to catch sight of nearby whales.
The San Juan Clipper’s three viewing decks allow plenty of opportunities to catch sight of nearby whales.

Q: What should I bring with me? 

A: Pack minimally! When the whales appear you don’t want to be busy lugging around all your gear. Bring a camera, your camera phone or some binoculars. (If you want some close-up photos, pack your telephoto lens or rent one for your adventure.) 

Keep your eyes peeled, whales can surface when you least expect it! Photo: Paola Toledo
Keep your eyes peeled, whales can surface when you least expect it! Photo: Paola Toledo

Pro tip: Don’t get caught up with getting the “shot.” The truth is, there are countless beautiful photos of whales taken with professional gear that are available to you. Sure, snap a couple shots, but then take some time to just watch and appreciate the whales as they move.

Your onboard naturalist will share their extensive knowledge with you about the whales. Ask questions and be present! These animals are truly majestic. 

Also, if you’re in the front of the pack, kindly move aside after a few minutes and let someone else get a clear view too.

Q: How do you spot orcas (where in the water should I look)?

A: Everywhere! They usually travel together so keep an eye out for a pod. If you see a couple other boats bunched together in one area, that may be a clue that the other vessels have already spotted ‘em! 

A sunny day out on the water with family and friends will leave everyone with memories to cherish for years to come.
A sunny day out on the water with family and friends will leave everyone with memories to cherish for years to come.

As Justine mentioned, you never know what you’ll see out on the Salish Sea, but armed with these tips from the pros, you’re sure to take home plenty of memories. Whether it’s your first trip or one of many, seeing these magnificent marine mammals breach and spyhop in our local waters will leave you breathless.

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2 Comments

  1. Which Whale Watching Cruise is the best to take for viewing Humpback Whales? Are they mostly in the Strait of Juan de Fuca?

    • Hi Christine,

      Great question!We typically see humpback in the Strait of Juan De Fuca and the San Juans. We see humpbacks mostly in the Strait, but we also have seen them breaching like crazy right outside Friday Harbor. Since they are wild animals, where exactly they will show up depends on the day. However, your best chances of seeing them are if you book our Seattle to Victoria Whale Watching Day Trip: http://www.clippervacations.com/multi-package/victoria-whale-watching-day-trip-from-seattle/

      Please let me know if you have any other questions or if there’s anything else I can help with.

      Cheers,

      Brenna

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