Jaw-dropping scenery, rich local ecology and the chance to view a magnificent orca or humpback whale in the wild. Whether you’re a Pacific Northwest native or a visitor to the region from around the world, a whale watching excursion in the San Juan Islands is an experience you’ll never forget. This is a day aboard the San Juan Clipper for a whale watching and sealife search trip.

“It’s drier, it smells different, it feels different, the geology is different. When you are looking around you see the Olympic Mountains to the south, you see Mt. Baker behind you and the San Juans and Vancouver Island in front of you. Everywhere you look it is just pristine and spectacular.” – Captain Jason Mihok, San Juan Clipper

Meet the real locals

Once you’ve made the journey from Seattle to the San Juans, with a quick stop in Friday Harbor, you’ll be underway, embarking on a two-hour voyage deep into the open waters of the Salish Sea, in search of orca, humpback whales and other sealife ranging from harbor seals to bald eagles and blue herons. Highly intelligent , the orcas’ fierce predatory hunting style has won them the nickname of “killer whale.” Despite their violent moniker, orcas show incredible curiosity, awareness and gentleness toward people. The goal of the San Juan Clipper crew is to help you experience the mighty wild orca in its natural habitat.

San Juan Clipper

Peering into the wheelhouse, you see Clipper Captain Jason Mihok and his crew members scanning the horizon with binoculars, searching for signs of these magnificent and elusive creatures. Unlike much of the modern world, the orcas aren’t tagged. You can’t find them on GPS, and they aren’t under surveillance. The only way to find them is the old-fashioned way, which is no small feat for an untrained eye.

The Clipper is part of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), an organization that gathers daily whale activity reports to assist organization members with locating whales in the area. As the Clipper glides across the waters, reports from the PWWA are heard over the airwaves, carefully guiding Captain Mihok’s course towards the orcas.

Captain Jason Mihok scans the horizon looking for whales and other signs of sealife.
Captain Jason Mihok scans the horizon looking for whales and other signs of sealife.

Passengers onboard make their way to the Clipper’s three observation decks, anxiously scanning the sea for signs of action. A quiet excitement falls over the boat as passengers await the first signs of whales. The onboard naturalist stands on the bow and starts calling out whale locations as distant blows are spotted. “Dorsal fin 11 o’clock. Surfacing one o’clock.” Today, we’ve lucked out and come across an entire family of orcas. As if timed with the movement of the tides, you see the orcas emerge together, heaving forward with gentle ease and grace. You can’t help but feel your skin tingle and heart flutter. Watching these impressive marine mammals flow powerfully through the water mesmerizes and enchants – it’s a magic unlike any other.

The onboard naturalist watches from the bow of the San Juan Clipper, calling out whales as they emerge from the water.
The onboard naturalist watches from the bow of the San Juan Clipper, calling out whales as they emerge from the water. Photo: Lindsey Ganahl

As the orca family splashes and plays, its much like watching perfectly choreographed synchronized swimming. One orca speedily jumps clear of the water and crashes ferociously back down on its side. Known as a breach, this is one of the most dramatic whale behaviors to watch. Meanwhile, another orca curiously hangs vertically in the water, poking its head up to get a peek at what is going on above the surface, a behavior called “spyhopping.” Yet another signals a friendly hello with a tail lob, or slap of its tail on the water. The “oohhs” and “aahhs” from the passengers become louder and louder with each playful movement.

The orcas ebb and flow in their movements, as they do, you identify the eye spot and saddle patch, distinct markings naturalists use to identify each individual whale.

Eye Spot – The oval, white eyespot just above and slightly behind each eye are unique to each whale and are thought to help killer whales in pods coordinate their social interactions when hunting and swimming. Dorsal Fin – To spot orcas, look for their tall black dorsal fins cutting through the water. These prominent fins range from two to six feet high and often have distinct nicks or scars. Saddle Patch – Much like a fingerprint, the grayish-white marks vary in shape, size, color and scarring and are unique to each Orca.
Eye Spot – The oval, white eyespot just above and slightly behind each eye are unique to each whale and are thought to help killer whales in pods coordinate their social interactions when hunting and swimming. Dorsal Fin – To spot orcas, look for their tall black dorsal fins cutting through the water. These prominent fins range from two to six feet high and often have distinct nicks or scars. Saddle Patch – Much like a fingerprint, the grayish-white marks vary in shape, size, color and scarring and are unique to each Orca.

The Salish Sea is home to two types of orca whales, Transients and Residents. Traveling through a much broader range than the Residents, the Transient orcas navigate up and down the Pacific coast, from Alaska to mid-California, spending their summers in the San Juans. Feeding primarily on marine mammals like seals and sea lions, these orcas travel in small pods between one and seven whales. Although the Transients and Residents share the same waters in the summer, you won’t see them traveling together, as they actively avoid each other.

With a tall dorsal fin with an open saddlepatch on one side that looks like a black swirl in the white area, and an almost closed saddlepatch on the other, the 25-year-old Blackberry (J-27) is one of the most recognizable male orcas in the Resident community. Photo: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster
With a tall dorsal fin with an open saddlepatch on one side that looks like a black swirl in the white area, and an almost closed saddlepatch on the other, the 25-year-old Blackberry (J-27) is one of the most recognizable male orcas in the Resident community. Photo: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster

Unlike the Transients, the endangered Resident orcas have a smaller and more defined traveling range, spending months at a time in one specific area. From the spring throughout summer, these whales are frequently spotted in the San Juan Islands chasing their main food source – salmon. Traveling in three distinct groups of 20-40 whales, known as J, K and L pods, the local Residents are family-oriented and social. Last year, there was a record baby boom of seven new orca calves among the residents. These babies are cared for by the entire pod and will spend their whole life with their birth family. They will interact, socialize and breed with other resident pods, but won’t change from one pod to another.

One of the most fascinating orca residents is the famed “Granny,” a 106-year-old member of “J” Pod, and the world’s oldest known living orca. Granny gained notoriety after her age was widely publicized following claims by marine parks that wild whales only live 25 to 35 years. Sadly in captivity, orca whales only live about four and a half years on average. Her survival in the wild for over a century has made her a conservation heroine, and an important icon for her species in the movement to end orca captivity and breeding practices.

This year, you might also observe feeding humpback whales in the area. The Northwest is experiencing a massive resurgence of humpbacks in the Salish Sea as their population in the North Pacific continues to rebound. Naturalists suspect the whales are drawn to our waters since their traditional feeding grounds have reached carrying capacity and they are forced look elsewhere for food. Humpbacks were once prolific in the Salish Sea, but this year’s “humpback comeback” marks the largest number of whales in the area in over 100 years.

After a leisurely afternoon of gazing at the continuous parade of dorsal fins, it is time to bid the whales farewell. The Clipper speeds swiftly back towards Friday Harbor. Along the way, you still see other curious marine mammals that call the Salish Sea home. Enormous Stellar Sea Lions, can be found snoozing on rocky outcroppings. You may also catch a glimpse of the black and white Dall’s Porpoise playing in the wake of passing boats. Overhead, bald eagles soar on the wind, closely watching the water, on alert for passing salmon.

A Steller Sea lion and her pup bask along the water. Photo: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster
A Steller Sea lion and her pup bask along the water. Photo: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster

While passengers relax in the cabin, the onboard naturalist strolls through the aisle ways, stopping to chat and answer questions about the life of San Juan orcas. On today’s voyage, Naturalist Taylor Barkee shares a mold of an orca tooth with curious young passengers, who marvel at its size and exude eagerness to learn more. A former Clipper passenger, Taylor’s day trip aboard the Clipper forever changed the course of her life. “I was standing on the bow watching a group of three orcas that passed by, and I started weeping profusely. There is something so magical about seeing them in their homes. I was completely captivated.”

Taylor knew then that she had to come back to the San Juan Clipper as a naturalist, and she recently fulfilled this dream, completing the Marine Naturalist Training at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. As a trained naturalist, Taylor’s wish is for all passengers to realize their impact on marine life.

“We are connected to the ecology around us. Everything we do from driving our cars to cleaning and constructing our homes; all of the pollution from those activities ends up in the waters of Puget Sound. Our everyday lives are connected to the lives of the orcas that are here.”

After a day aboard the Clipper, it’s easy to recognize that whale watching is about far more than just wildlife observation. Passengers feel empowered with information and first-hand experience that can be used to help educate friends, family and children about protecting these creatures through conservation. While most people are enticed by the beauty and magic of watching whales, few realize that the experience will leave them with a new sense of connectedness to them. This is perhaps the best souvenir you can take away from a day spent meeting the “real locals.”

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