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
  • Arrive Friday Harbor: 11:45 AM
  • 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

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.

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.)

What is the age limit for your tour?

There is no age limit for either of our whale watching tours. 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.

However, 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.

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 on March 17, 24, 31 & April 7, 2017. 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.

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. Last year, for example, we had a 96% success rate! On the rare occasion that we don’t encounter whales, we offer another excursion, on us.

Can I smoke on your vessel?

Our second level outdoor deck at the rear of the vessel is our designated smoking area. We ask you be courteous to those passengers around them when using this area.

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 

How close can we get to the whales?

As an active member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, we follow all guidelines for respectful wildlife viewing. We are required to keep 200 yards between us and the orcas and 100 yards from all other marine mammals in U.S. waters to protect them from harm and give the whales the space they need to enjoy their environment. However, keep in mind these distances on the water still offer an excellent viewing experience and allow you to watch these magnificent marine mammals as they splash and play in our 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’ll see seals, otters, Dall’s porpoise, minke, humpback whales, bald eagles and more!

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

Whale watching peaks in March, April and May as gray whales cruise along Washington’s coast during their annual migration from Mexico to Alaska to feed. Later in the fall, they travel south again to breed and give birth in the warmer waters. These magnificent mammals make the longest journey of any mammal, traveling 10,000 to 14,000 miles round trip.

Out of 22,000 whales, about 200 of them make up the Pacific Coast feeding group, who don’t go to Alaska but rather stay in the Pacific Northwest to feed on ghost shrimp populations found in the waters of Possession Sound at the south end of Camano and Whidbey Island.

The resident orcas that reside in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands are known as the Southern Resident Community and are one of the best-studied orca populations in the world. From spring through summer, and sometimes into the fall, these resident whales seek out salmon returning to spawn. In the fall and winter months, they leave the area in pursuit of salmon migrating to the open sea. An adult orca must consume about 40 salmon a day, so they spend considerable time hunting their next meal!

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

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