Clipper's Commitment to Responsible Whale Watching

Educational Encounters That Inspire Conservation

As a proud member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), Clipper is committed to operating with responsible and sustainable wildlife and whale watching practices. We support and adhere to all federal and state marine mammal protection regulations, using science-based viewing methods to ensure we are non-disruptive to the local wildlife. We do not observe critically endangered populations, as the long-term health and safety of our local species is our utmost priority.

The Pacific Northwest has the best studied populations of orcas in the world. Clipper contributes to this by staffing each Wildlife and Whale Tour with an expert naturalist who in addition to educating our guests on whale and wildlife behavior in the species’ natural environment, collects data in real-time and reports it back to whale research organizations to accurately track and monitor the health of locally spotted whales.

Our conservation focus extends beyond our tours. Several of our current and former crewmembers volunteer or are members of conservation organizations such as Orca Network, ON Sighting Network, SR³, NOAA, WDFW, Richfield Wildlife Refuge, Seattle Aquarium, Friends of the Hylebos, and more.

Please visit the PWWA’s FAQs section for common questions asked about orca whale conservation and responsible whale watching. You can also find relevant studies on the local environment here.

Clipper Whale Conservation Support

Local whale and sealife education, research and conservation are at the forefront of Clipper’s whale watching tours.

Clipper has donated $150,000 as a supporting partner of regional nonprofit SR3, whose mission focuses on advancing the health and welfare of marine life in the Pacific Northwest.

How You Should Responsibly Whale Watch

Pacific Whale Watching Association Guidelines

We strongly recommend that all vessels traversing the Salish Sea and beyond read and abide by the PWWA Guidelines.

PWWA logo

Transient Killer Whale Protection Safe Viewing Zones

Protection Zone

Maintain a 200 yard radius around any orca whale as a “No-Go” zone, in which no vessel may approach.

Go-Slow Quiet Zone

Recommended 880 yard (1/2 mile) radius around any orca whale as a “Go Slow” Quiet Zone, in which no vessel may exceed 7 knots.

Whale Watching Tips and Guidance


Stay 200 Yards Away

Avoid approaching closer than 200 yards to any whale. Keep an eye out for whale warning flags and actively communicate via radio with professional whale watching vessels on location or in the surrounding area.


Whale Warning Flag

When whales have been spotted, professional whale watching vessels will fly the whale watching warning flag.


Stop Immediately

Allow the whales to pass if your vessel is unexpectedly within 100 yards.


Reduce Speed

Make sure you reduce speed to less than seven knots when within 880 yards of the nearest whale. Avoid abrupt course changes.


Keep Clear

Stay away of the whales’ path and avoid positioning within the 880 yard area in the path of the whales.


Be Cautious and Courteous

Approach areas of known or suspected marine mammal activity with extreme caution. Look in all directions before planning your approach or depature.


Stay on the Offshore Side

When the whales are traveling close to shore, stay on the offshore side. Remain at least 200 yards offshore at all times.


Safe Zone


Risk Zone

Making a Difference with Conservation

5 Things You Can Do To Help Protect Our Salmon-Eating Southern Resident Orca Whales

What can you do to help protect our cherished salmon-eating Southern Resident Orca Whale population? There are several good answers — contribute donations or volunteer your time towards Chinook salmon habitat restoration projects (the primary food source that Southern Resident orcas rely on), as well as follow conservation best practices in your daily life at home. Here are a few ways you can help ensure a healthy future for these animals:

Volunteer or Donate: If you live in the Northwest, ask your onboard naturalist about how to get involved with habitat restoration projects to protect and increase the supply of Chinook wild salmon. If you are visiting the area, consider visiting The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor to donate in support of research and rehabilitation efforts to protect our salmon-eating Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Avoid farmed Atlantic salmon: Farmed salmon have a detrimental effect on our wild populations, causing issues such as the spread of disease, environmental pollution (the concentrated antibiotics, pesticides and chemicals used in farms often leach into local waters) and a potentially weaker salmon gene pool due to wild-farmed salmon hybrids.

Eliminate Unnecessary Plastics: Instead of plastic bags and bottles, which often end up in the ocean, use reusable shopping bags and stainless steel water bottles.

Avoid Toxic Chemicals: Avoid using toxic pesticides and fertilizers in your yard and garden, and choose organic foods when possible. This will reduce the amount of chemical runoff into waterways, which eventually end up in our oceans. Use biodegradeable cleaning supplies.

Keep Learning and Share Knowledge: As research evolves, we encourage you to continue learning about orca whales and sharing knowledge with friends, family and co-workers! Knowledge is power in protecting our precious salmon-eating Southern Resident Killer Whales!


Salmon-Eating Orca Whales

Also Known as Resident Orca Whales

Salmon-eating orcas have a smaller and more defined traveling range, spending months at a time in a specific area. They travel in family pods of 20–40 whales. They mostly spend their entire life with the pod into which they are born. 

Physical Appearance

Behaviors & Environment

They interact, socialize and breed with other resident pods but rarely change from one pod to another. Adult salmon-eating orcas in the Salish Sea need 100-300 pounds of food a day and rely on Chinook salmon for more than 70% of their diet.

The endangered resident orcas that historically spend 4-7 months of the year in the Salish Sea are known as the Southern Resident Community and are one of the best-studied orca populations in the world. Their community is made up of three distinct pods known as J, K and L pods. 

From spring throughout the summer and sometimes into the fall, these fish-eating whales are regularly seen in the San Juan Islands as they seek out the salmon returning to spawn. In the fall and winter months, they leave protected waters, sometimes for months, swimming out to sea to follow the salmon. An adult orca must consume about 40 salmon a day, so they spend considerable time hunting.

At a Glance

  • Travel in large extended family groups or pods (J, K, L Pods in the Pacific Northwest)
  • Most often stay with pod for entire life

As of January 2021, 74 animals remain in the Southern Resident Killer Whale population.

Mammal-Eating Orca Whales

Also Known as Transient Orca Whales

Mammal-eating orca whales (also called Bigg’s or “transient” whales, here in the Salish Sea) often travel much farther distances than salmon-eating orca whales. The mammal-eating orcas we see here travel between Alaska and the mid-Californian coast in small pods, consisting of between one and seven whales.

Physical Appearance

Behavior & Environment

Mammal-eating orcas are a thriving population (80 recorded new births in local pods since 2012) and feed primarily on marine mammals such as seals and sea lions but will also form large temporary pods in order to attack other species of whales like the gray or minke. There is no known socializing, interaction or breeding between transient and resident orcas. In fact, resident and transient orcas seem to actively avoid each other.

At a Glance

  • Primarily mammal eaters; in the Salish Sea, they are frequently seen hunting porpoises, seals, and sea lions
  • Travel together in smaller groups, usually a mother and her direct offspring
  • Do not share the same vocalizations as salmon eating killer whales, and thus do not interact with them

As of 2011, estimate total population of 500 mammal-eating orca whales.

Orcas are black in color with white undersides as well as white markings located behind the eyes and dorsal fin. The largest of the dolphin family, male orcas average 27 feet in length and weigh eight tons with dorsal fins growing as high as 6 feet.

Females are smaller, growing to an average of 23 feet and weighing six tons. Their dorsal fins only grow to two feet and are more curved, making it possible to tell the genders apart while viewing them from the boat. 

To spot orcas, look for their black dorsal fins rising through the water. Be sure to scan the horizon for rising puffs of whale exhalation known as a blow. This is a sign that a whale is coming to the surface to breathe. 


An orca may jump clear of the water and crash back down on its back or side. 

Tail Lobbing

We may also see an orca slap its tail fin on the water’s surface called tail lobbing.

Spy Hopping

An orca hangs vertically above the surface to get a glimpse at what is going on outside of the water.

As we cruise along, you may catch sight of a whale torpedoing in and out of the water in a rapid series of short, shallow arcs while swimming. This is called porpoising or speed surfing and allows the orcas to reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.



Please note that San Juan Clipper does not observe Endangered Southern Residents on our tours, the vocalizations provided are purely intended for educational purposes only.

Biggs Transients – Are known to have a squeaky tone to them, much like a large balloon releasing air!

Southern Residents Together – Southern Residents overall are a lot more vocal with different, traditionally higher pitches than their mammal-eating counterparts.

J – Jpod is known to have the highest pitching vocalizations

L – Lpod tends to have longer duration calls with sounds that can be likened to birds

K – Kpod are nicknamed the “kittens” due to their meowing-like vocalizations


How You Can Help Protect Salmon-Eating Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs)

Clipper supports the actions taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to list the Southern Resident Orca Whale pods as endangered. As an active member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, Clipper has been proactive in developing and adhering to self-regulating guidelines, beyond those required by NOAA and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

While following safe viewing guidelines and supporting Chinook Salmon habitat restoration are two of the most impactful steps to protect SRKWs, we strongly encourage visiting the Center for Whale Research’s conservation page to learn more best practices and steps to protect our cherished whales:

Our Commitment

Clipper supports the actions taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to list the salmon-eathing Southern Resident pods of orca whales as endangered. Clipper is an active member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association Northwest and has been proactive in developing and adhering to self-regulating guidelines, beyond those mandated by NOAA and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

We are dedicated to working in cooperation with government agencies in both the United States and Canada, as well as with non-governmental and industry organizations, by carrying out the conservation plan designed to provide the greatest protection possible to Puget Sound’s whale population.

Other Whales in the Pacific Northwest

Gray Whale

Gray whales, like humpback and minke whales, belong to the baleen whale family. Instead of teeth, these whales have baleen, fringes of keratin, the same material our hair and fingernails are made of, growing from the roof of their mouths. Baleen looks a bit like the bristles on a push broom, and help the whales filter small fish, large plankton and other prey from the water. Unique among baleen whales, gray whales fill their vast mouths with mud from the sea bottom and filter it through their baleen to capture shrimp and other small animals.

The average adult gray whale reaches 40 feet and weighs up to 35 tons. They have robust bodies that are mottled gray, marked with barnacles and orange patches that are caused by parasitic whale lice. To spot this animal, look for a tall and heart-shaped blow near shore as they feed in shallow water. These whales have no dorsal fin and sometimes show their tails when diving.

Gray Whales have just 6 distinct calls, all of which are considered low frequency. Their lowest is just at 100hz!

Humpback Whale

Once an extremely rare sight in the Salish Sea, humpback whales are becoming frequent visitors here as their Pacific populations recover from over-hunting early in the last century. Humpbacks are migratory, spending their summers along the Pacific Northwest coast and returning to winter breeding areas in Hawaii or off the Central American coast. Members of both populations may be seen in the Salish Sea.

Humpback whales can reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh 40 tons. They have dark gray backs with a small, crescent-shaped dorsal fin perched atop a rounded hump, for which they are named. These whales have long pectoral fins, usually much lighter in color than the rest of their bodies. Individual humpback whales can be identified by the shape and markings of their tail flukes, which they may show above the surface at the beginning of a deep dive. Using baleen plates as minke whales do, humpbacks feed on krill and small forage fishes.

Humpback Call – Humpback whales have an eclectic collection of clicks, whistles, and thump trains.

Humpback Song – While all humpbacks can make calls, only the males “sing” during their breeding season.

Minke Whale

Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales. To feed, the minke takes in a huge mouthful of water; then, using its tongue, pushes the water back out of its mouth catching small fish and plankton in its bristly baleen.

Minke whales are dark gray to black with a white underside and a white patch on both front flippers. They often have a pale chevron behind their heads. Adults grow to an average size of 30 feet and weigh between five and ten tons and females tend to be larger than males.

The minke are usually solitary but may be seen in groups of up to three whales. They spend most of their time feeding, but have been known to breach, usually three times in a row, and are most commonly observed making dolphin-like dives in the water. To spot a minke whale, look for a low, bushy blow at the water line as well as a broad black back and small dorsal fin.

Minke whales produce loud sounds that have given names of ratchets, clicks, grunts, and thump trains. Their calls can get up to 152 decibels, as loud as a jet at takeoff!

Marine Life in the Pacific Northwest

Harbor Porpoise

These relatively shy animals are one of the world’s smallest cetaceans, rarely growing more than five feet in length. Those who live in the Salish Sea, unlike populations in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, remain here year round instead of migrating. Harbor

porpoises rarely show more than their dark gray or dark brown backs and small, triangular dorsal fins above the surface of the water. They may be seen traveling alone or in small groups. Their small size makes them challenging to spot in choppy seas, but they are easily visible when surfacing in calm waters.

Harbor porpoises eat a diet of squid and small forage fishes, such as herring and smelt. While behaviorally they are very different from the Salish Sea’s other porpoise species, the Dall’s porpoise, the two species have been known to breed together resulting in a hybrid resembling a harbor porpoise in appearance but behaving more like a Dall’s porpoise.

Harbor Seal

This is both the most common marine mammal in the area and the easiest to spot. They have short necks, small front flippers and are unable to pull their hind flippers under their bodies. This makes their movements out of the water ungainly and inchworm-like, landing them the nickname “crawling seal.”

Harbor seals’ distinct torpedo shape is the result of a thick layer of fat, called blubber, that insulates them from the frigid waters of the Pacific Northwest. The shape is also important in making the seal hydrodynamic so it can swim quickly and efficiently. Their spotted fur varies from nearly white to almost black, and adults are on average six feet in length and weigh about 250 pounds.

These seals are incredible hunters and are able to dive up to 600 feet deep and stay submerged over 25 minutes to find their prey of fish. Look on rock outcroppings near the water line and beaches for their familiar shape stretched out for a mid-day nap.

Stellar Sea Lion

Sea lions differ from seals in a variety of ways. They have elongated necks and long front flippers that are used for propulsion when swimming. They are also able to pull their hind flippers under their body. This enables them to use their flippers for four-legged movement, hence the name “walking seals.”

The Steller sea lion is the largest in the region and the least commonly seen. The males are much larger than the females averaging nine feet, 1,500 pounds and seven feet, 600

pounds respectively. They are light brown to blond but appear tan in the water. The males also develop a thickened neck and mane as they age. Steller sea lions are opportunistic feeders and may be able to dive to 600 feet or more.

California Sea Lion

This species is the most abundant sea lion in the area even though it is almost exclusively males who are seen here. Most females remain at their breeding grounds in California year-round while the males migrate north.

They stay from fall through late spring, feeding on fish and preparing for the summer breeding season. California sea lions are dark brown and appear black when in the water. The males also develop a prominent raised forehead called a sagittal crest. Females average five feet and 250 pounds. To spot California sea lions, look on rock outcroppings close to the water. They are also quite fond of lounging on buoys and docks. Their dog-like barks are also a sure indication of their presence.


Salmon are anadromous fish. They are born in fresh water, migrate to salt water and return to fresh water to spawn. After the returning adults reproduce, they die, their bodies providing nourishment to the river system. The salmon’s life is not an easy one and mortality is high. On average, a female salmon will lay approximately 4,000 eggs but only two will survive to return to their spawning grounds.

There are five species of salmon found in the Salish Sea. These are the Chinook, Coho, Chum, Pink and Sockeye. Chinook are the largest salmon species. At full growth they vary from 5 to 30 pounds. When these fish exceed 30 pounds, they are often called “king” or “tyee” salmon. The largest Chinook on record weighed an incredible 126 pounds.

The best time to view salmon is during the late summer and fall when they are returning to their native streams. They can be seen struggling up salmon ladders at dams or you may glimpse them in shallow water as they swim upstream.


The Salish Sea is home to many jellyfish species, from tiny, translucent sea acorns to the large lion’s mane jelly that can reach more than two feet in diameter. Jellyfish use stinging tentacles to ensnare their prey. Smaller species eat plankton while larger species may also eat small fish. The bioluminescent crystal jellyfish is common during summer months in the San Juan Islands.

Plumrose Anemone

Plumose anemone are quite common in Puget Sound, and are usually found in slow moving water either in shallower coastal waters or at great depths. They are also frequently seen growing on docks and pilings. These anemones have a column or “body” that is about 20 inches tall and are easily recognizable by their abundant, branched tentacles that create a feathery, plumose effect for which they are named.

Plumose anemones have two different types of tentacles, for feeding and for defense. Plumose are typically an opaque white color, but orange, salmon and brown versions have also been seen. To spot plumose anemones, look on rocks, dock pilings or even on the underside of floating docks.


Barnacles are inter-tidal crustaceans found living on hard surfaces such as rocks. As larva, barnacles resemble crabs and live amongst the coastal plankton. When adulthood approaches, the barnacle finds a rock or other appropriate surface to live on permanently.

Once a place is chosen, the barnacle flips over and glues its head to the surface using a very powerful adhesive. (The adhesive that barnacles excrete is the strongest in nature — so strong it was used in dentistry.) It then secretes a shell around itself and lives out its life filtering food out of the water with its bristly feet. There are several different species of barnacles found on our beaches. To find them, look for their white or gray “houses” attached to rocks, boat hulls, pilings, etc. during low tide.

Bird Watching in the Pacific Northwest

Bald Eagle

The bald eagle is a large bird of prey with a wingspan over seven feet and weighing up to 15 pounds. The females are typically about 20 percent larger than the males. They are opportunistic feeders eating anything from carrion to live fish. This eagle has eyesight that surpasses human capabilities by as much as eight times. They use this ability to track fish and small mammals from the air.

Adult bald eagles are dark brown with striking white heads and tails. A bald eagle’s white feathers do not appear until they are between three to five years old. Juvenile bald eagles are brown, mottled with white in the chest and the undersides of their wings. Bald eagles mate for life and return to the same nesting site each year.

The San Juans boast one of the largest nesting sites in the lower 48 states. To spot these birds, look for what appears to be a golf ball hanging in a tree. This will most likely materialize into the white head of an adult bald eagle. They may also be found on beaches, eating dead salmon that are too heavy for them to lift.


These raptors live around both fresh and salt water, eating almost exclusively fish. They can sometimes be confused with bald eagles but are smaller, with a wingspan of five feet and weighing only three pounds. Adults are dark brown with white on the crest of their heads and a prominent dark eye stripe.

These birds build bulky nests in trees, on sheds, poles, docks and on special platforms built for them by environmental groups and local utility agencies. It is easiest to spot this bird while it is in flight. Note how their narrow wings bend back at the wrist like a gull’s. They can also be observed hovering over the water before diving and snatching their prey feet first.

Great Blue Heron

This is arguably the most distinct and recognizable bird in the Pacific Northwest. They are four feet tall, gray birds with a black stripe extending over their eyes. Their white fore neck is streaked with black. The great blue heron is a year round resident to the bays, salt marshes and rocky coasts of this region. They stalk through the shallow water on slender legs while plunging their long, sharp bills under the surface to capture fish, frogs and other small aquatic animals.

Herons nest high in the treetops close to water. They have a six foot wingspan and are the only heron-like birds to fold their necks back into an “S” shape during flight. To spot a great blue heron, look for them wading near rocky beaches, through kelp beds and along the beach during low tides. To spot them in flight, look for their “S” shaped necks. Deception Pass is a favorite heron hangout.


Three different species of cormorants inhabit in the region. The most common are the Pelagic and the Brandt’s cormorant. Cormorants are dark in color with colorful, bare facial skin, set back legs and long hooked bills. Though not closely related to pelicans, these birds also have a small throat pouch used for feeding and breeding purposes.

Unlike most water birds, cormorants do not have waterproof feathers. This allows them to dive to depths of 200 feet or more to capture herring and other small fish. When they surface, they cannot fly immediately and must dry their wings by spreading them away from their bodies and flapping them. The best way to spot cormorants is to look for them drying their wings on rocky outcroppings and on top of buoys.

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By Erin Murray, Former FRS Clipper Naturalist

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