Exploding powerfully out of the water, twisting and whirling before and crashing back down on the surface, the mighty beast breaches. This is a sight that is becoming increasingly more common in the Salish Sea this summer, with the arrival of a dramatic new group of visitors to our region. The humpbacks are here! And Clipper passengers have a front row seat to observe these impressive mammals as they feed, splash and play in our local waters.

Humpbacks delight passengers aboard the Washington State ferries. Photo: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster
Humpbacks delight passengers aboard the Washington state ferries, as seen from the San Juan Clipper. Photo: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster

We’ve experienced a massive resurgence of humpback whale activity in the Northwest unlike any other in recent history. Clipper Naturalist Stephanie Raymond, notes that the group currently feeding in the Salish Sea is the largest in over 100 years.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association, (PWWA) reports that the number of whales in the area is unprecedented, particularly off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, where Clipper guests witnessed an incredible show this week. “We saw 15,000,016 whales!” exclaims a four-year-old passenger aboard the San Juan Clipper. A slight exaggeration, but still Raymond recalls, “I counted nine separate blows when they all came to the surface. The water was still and lovely and the passengers were absolutely enchanted while we watched the whales roll, feed along the surface and show their tail flukes over the water.”


The humpback activity in the Northwest is largely due to a rebounding North Pacific whale population. The whales have come back from the once dwindling numbers of just 1,600 when whaling was outlawed in 1966. The whales of the North Pacific now number over 21,000 and naturalists from around the area speculate that the food source in their normal feeding areas further north, is not great enough to sustain the existing humpback whale population.

Breaching humpbacks are a common sight in the Salish Sea this season. Photo: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster
Breaching humpbacks are a common sight in the Salish Sea this season. Photo: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster

This season’s humpback comeback is reminiscent of what you might see in regions renowned for the magnificent mammals,  such as Alaska or Hawaii. Watching the whales this season has been a true gift to our passengers, Raymond says, “I heard one woman say she could have stayed all evening watching. Over and over I heard what a special experience that had been for people. Some expressed sincere gratitude for the captain’s decision to take us so far off course to see the whales.”

You can catch sight of these remarkable creatures by hopping on the San Juan Clipper in downtown Seattle. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with humpbacks in our own backyard. Over the past weekend, we had the pleasure of viewing eight to ten humpback whales as they surrounded our vessel between San Juan and Vancouver Island. Whale watching doesn’t get much more spectacular than this, check out the footage below!

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Feature Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Naturalist