The boat falls silent. Our onboard naturalist has just announced that we’ve entered orca territory. Eyes are peeled all around, with no one speaking but to murmur between bated breaths. As the boat rocks gently in the wake you see movement to the starboard side. Whoosh! A colossal 8-foot-long tail flies out of the water, hanging in the air momentarily before smashing back down against the surface.

Whale sightings happen right when you least expect them, but with our quick and easy FAQ, we’ll help you keep focused on the fun action during your whale excursion. Read on to discover what to expect and how to prepare for an epic whale watching trip aboard the San Juan Clipper.

The scenic, changing landscape along the route to San Juans is an experience unto itself!

Binoculars are available for rent onboard.
There’s nothing like the excitement you feel after the first gray whale sighting of the day. Photo: Jason Mihok
Our onboard naturalists have a deep knowledge about the region’s various wildlife.
On sunny spring or summer days, our viewing decks are quite a hot commodity!

It’s not unusual for orcas to show off when they play around, sometimes getting completely airborne! Photo: Renee Beitzel 

Seals bark and wail at each other under the warm afternoon sun.
The 25-year-old Blackberry (J-27) is one of the most recognizable male orcas in the Resident community. Photo: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster

Frequently Asked Questions

The Basic FAQs

 

How long are your whale watching trips and what is the schedule?

 

San Juan Islands Whale Watching and Sealife Search Day Trip:

This is an 11.5-hour tour departing Seattle at 8:15 am and returning at 7:45 pm.

Itinerary:

  • Depart Pier 69 in Seattle: 8:15 AM
  • Brief Passenger Pick Up/Drop Off in Friday Harbor: 11:45 AM  (If you are going on the whale watching tour, you stay on the boat)
  • Whale & Sealife Search: 12:00 PM to 2:30 PM
  • Free time in Friday Harbor: 2:30 PM to 4:30 PM
  • Depart Friday Harbor: 5:00 PM
  • Arrive Seattle: 7:45 PM

*Due to the time spent on the boat during the nearly 12-hour San Juan Sealife Search day trip, this tour is not recommended for children under six. Adults traveling with young children should plan accordingly by bringing along toys, books, videos, etc. to keep little ones occupied.

Gray Whale Watching with Whidbey Island Stop:

This is a 7-hour tour departing Seattle at 9:00 am and returning at 4:00 pm.

Itinerary:

  • Depart Pier 69 in Seattle: 9:00 AM
  • Cruise and Whale Watching: 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM
  • Arrive Langley, Whidbey Island: 12:00 PM  (Note that we may arrive/depart 1 hour earlier if determined that whales will be viewed in the afternoon)
  • Depart Langley: 2:30 PM
  • Arrive Seattle: 4:00 PM

*Although the overall day should not vary by much, the itinerary will remain somewhat flexible to allow for viewing the whales Northbound or Southbound, or possibly in another area, depending upon where the whales happen to be spotted on those dates. Times are approximate.

Our gray whales tour is a great tour for families, and the kids will love learning more about the whales at the Langley Whale Center.

What do you suggest I wear and bring on a Clipper whale watching tour?

  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Binoculars (Don’t worry if you don’t have a pair or forget to pack them along, we have pairs for rent onboard.)
  • Camera/video camera
  • Extra batteries
  • Water bottle (no glass please)
  • Snacks and/or lunch or dinner (We also carry food for purchase onboard and there are plenty of places to grab a bite in both Langley and Friday Harbor.)
  • Wear flat shoes preferably with a rubber bottom, such as tennis shoes
  • Rain jacket or windbreaker
  • Gloves (optional)
  • Motion sickness medication (If you’re prone to motion sickness (or even if you’re not), pack some form of medication just in case. Ginger is also an effective natural remedy. Forgot to bring them along? Our crew can provide you with both onboard.)

 

Are there bathrooms on the boat?

Yes, indeed. We have four bathrooms aboard our San Juan Clipper.

Can we bring our own food? Does the boat have food?

You’re more than welcome to bring your own food aboard. We do have an onboard menu featuring fresh, local items like Ellenos Greek yogurt, Ivar’s clam chowder and our delicious Clipper Café sandwiches. Keep in mind our boat is cashless and payments are by credit card only. Both of our whale tours dock ashore with time to explore either Langley or Friday Harbor, allowing for a bite to eat or a scenic picnic.

Do I need my passport?

Nope, all our whale watching excursions are in U.S. waters, so no passport is necessary.

Will your vessel accommodate a person in a wheelchair?

Yes, we provide wheelchair accessibility aboard our vessels, as well as assistance in Langley via small motorized carts (there is a small hill to get up to town, and the incline may be steep for some). Our vessel has one wheelchair accessible bathroom onboard.

Please let us know ahead of time if you need wheelchair accessibility and we will arrange to have you boarded early. Please note that due to limited loading capabilities, we are unfortunately unable to accommodate motorized wheelchairs at this time.

Do you book school groups, kid clubs, corporate groups?

We’d be happy to! If you have a group request, request a group quote and an agent will be in touch about a proposal shortly. We offer great student rates for all our trips, and our gray whale watching trip is a great educational experience. Students will learn about the whales and natural surroundings from our onboard naturalist, as well as have a chance to explore Langley’s Whale Museum. We offer gray whale charters and group trips and overnight stays are also available for our orca whale watching trip to San Juan Island.

Can I make reservations for your tour online?

Absolutely! Follow the links here to book our Gray Whale Watching trip, San Juan Islands Whale Watching trip or other whale watching excursions. 

What if I need to cancel my tour?

Each tour has a different cancellation policy, which is noted during the booking process before the payment page, and can also be found on your confirmation documents.

Do we get on a different boat for the whale watching portion of the trip?

No, you will be traveling on the San Juan Clipper for all portions of the trip. With two great viewing decks (with the top 3rd level having 360-degree views and the main deck on the bow open for viewing while the vessel is stopped), both indoor and door seating, our sleek catamaran is the perfect viewing platform for wildlife.

What if we don’t see any whales?

It’s uncommon that we don’t see any whales on our tours, which is why we have a whale sighting guarantee. On the rare occasion that we don’t encounter whales, we offer another excursion, on us.

Can I smoke on your vessel?

No, there is no smoking or vaping onboard the San Juan Clipper.

Is the boat ride rough? Will I get seasick?

While we don’t normally sail over rough waters, occasionally it can be choppy once we’re underway. If you are prone to seasickness or motion sickness, we provide complimentary medication, which we recommend you take as soon as boarding is completed.

The Whale Watching Experience 

 

What kind of whales will we see?

The Salish Sea boasts and an impressive diversity of whales, from the unique group of gray whales that visits the inland sea every spring, to majestic humpback whales, to killer whales from two separate and distinct populations or “ecotypes.” Minke whales and even occasionally fin whales are also seen here, as well as their smaller cetacean cousins, porpoises and dolphins.

Whales are wild animals and while we know where they are likely to be, we can’t predict which kind or where we will see them on any given day. Part of the fun is in the search! Whales may be spotted at any time during our cruise, although it is most likely we will see them during the designated Whale and Sealife Search portion of the day. Keep your eyes on the water, and let the crew know if you see any fins, flukes or blows!

How close can we get to the whales?

As an active member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, we follow all laws and guidelines for respectful wildlife viewing.  We are required by federal law to keep 200 yards between us and the killer whales, and 100 yards between us and all other marine mammals in U.S. waters, to protect them from harm and give them the space they need to behave naturally. However, keep in mind that these distances on the water still offer excellent viewing experiences and allow you to watch these magnificent marine mammals in the freedom of their own home waters.

What other wildlife will we see?

The Pacific Northwest is world renowned not only for whales but for all kinds of wildlife around the Salish Sea. You may see seals, river otters, porpoises, bald eagles, sea lions and more!

Why do the whales come to this area? What the best time of year for whale watching?

Generally speaking, whales visit the Salish Sea because they can find their preferred foods here.

The special group of “Sounders” gray whales arrives early in the spring to feed on ghost shrimp off the shores of Whidbey Island. They are usually here from March-April, then continue their northern migration to Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Humpback and minke whales tend to arrive later in the spring and linger through the summer and into early autumn, feeding on small forage fishes like herring and smelt.

Killer whales are iconic in the Salish Sea, and there are two distinct populations that we may see here. Our critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales feed primarily on Chinook salmon, and historically have been common in the waters around the San Juan Islands from late May through September as they hunt for Chinook that are gathering to swim up the Fraser and Skagit rivers.  However, if a particular year’s Chinook run is too small, the Southern Residents will hunt elsewhere for salmon up and down the Pacific Northwest coast.

The so-called transient or Bigg’s killer whales eat mammals instead of salmon, and while they are in the Salish Sea are frequently seen hunting harbor seals and porpoises. Their travels are unpredictable but they may visit our waters at any time of the year.

How do you know where the whales are?

The San Juan Clipper is part of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and is in contact with several other whale watching vessels that leave from different ports throughout the region. This allows us to know what animals have been sighted recently in the many areas whales and other wildlife frequent. Additionally, we follow the Orca Network and their regular sighting updates. They do a great job keeping tabs on our local wildlife, and it’s hard not to get excited reading about their frequent encounters!

The data and research collected and shared with us by the Center for Whale Research and Cascadia Research also help us learn more about the whales of the Salish Sea. This better understanding of the whales’ habits and behaviors, combined with the years of experience of our crew, means that you’ll have the most time possible with these majestic sea-dwellers.

After an exhilarating day on the water and time on the town, we won’t blame you if you’re already planning your next whale watching excursion! There’s no better chance to see the “real locals,” and with our whale sighting guarantee, you can rest assured you’ll get a whale of a view!

 

Feature Photo: Ron Norwood