Where Can You Watch Killer Whales in North America?


killer whale

Killer whale or orcas, as they are commonly known, can be seen in many places in North America. However, killer whales are actually dolphins. In this guide, I show you the best places to see these fantastic animals in their natural habitats.

There are many places to watch killer whales in North America. From Vancouver Island to Monterey Bay in California, killer whales can be seen along the West Coast.

If you want to know the best places and times to see killer whales, then this guide will help you to watch some of the most beautiful and graceful animals in the oceans.

Where Can You Watch Killer Whales in North America

San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands is one of the most spectacular places in North America to see killer whales. The waters surrounding the islands are home to a group of orcas called the Southern Resident killer whales.  

The Southern Resident killer whales comprise of seventy-eight whales in three pods. They can be seen in the area in summer and fall.  

This group stays in the area for the fish, more specifically, the chinook salmon runs. You can see the Southern Residents feed almost anywhere around the San Juan Islands.

If you are planning to visit the San Juan Islands, then the perfect time to watch the Southern Resident killer whales is from late May to the middle of October.

There are many different whale-watching tour operators around the San Juan Islands.  

Once you arrive in the San Juan Islands, you will find plenty of different whale-watching cruise trips. If you want an almost guaranteed sighting of the killer whales, then one of these boats is essential to see them.

Keep in mind that the small boats will be able to get you to see the killer whales much quicker compared to some of the bigger boats. However, although the larger boats are slower, they do offer better refuge during bad weather.

If you are an adventurous person, a fun activity with your family can be to go kayaking to watch some whales from the water.

If you do not want to go on a whale-watching boat, then there are plenty of places on land where you may be able to spot one of the many whales around the Islands.  

killer whale

One of the great places to see the killer whales from the shore is Lime Kiln Point, State Park. The killer whales often come in near the west side of the island, making it the best place to watch these amazing killer whales. Lime Kiln Point is also known as the Whale Watch Park.

Vancouver Island

The best season to see some killer whales in the southern Georgia Strait between the mainland and Vancouver Island is during the summer. 

Although killer whale sightings are not as frequent as other whale and dolphin sightings around Vancouver Island, they can be seen year-round.

Killer whales can sometimes be seen around Swiftsure Bank, Barkley Sound, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and Clayoquot Sound.

killer whale

You may choose to leave from Tofino, Sooke, Victoria, or Sidney for a whale-watching tour. The Broughton Archipelago and the Johnstone Strait off the northeast coast of the island also have some resident orcas, with approximately 250 of them living there. 

Most whale-watching boats and kayaking trips leave from Alert Bay, Port McNeill, and Telegraph Cove.

Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay is one of the best whale watching places not just in North America, but in my opinion, the world. In Monterey Bay, you may be able to get a spectacular sighting of the local orcas in a boat.  

As great as Monterey Bay is for whale watching, seeing killer whales is a bit hit and miss. Although many people do see them, and plenty of whale-watching trips promise them, sightings are quite sporadic. Whereas some other whales can be seen on a daily basis, seeing a killer whale in Monterey Bay is left to chance.

Killer Whales in Alaska

There are plenty of killer whales in Monterey Bay, with three different sets. There are offshore killer whales, the resident killer whales, and the transients, also known as Bigg’s killer whales.

Bigg’s killer whales travel between Alaska, the San Juan Islands, and Southern California. The best time to see them is mid-April to mid-May, but even in those months, they may be elsewhere.

Monterey Bay is also home to some aggressive orcas. Between the middle of April to the middle of May, orcas may ambush and kill some of the gray whale calves that are migrating to their feeding grounds in Alaska. Although not a pleasant sight, it is something you will remember forever.  

The hunting of the gray whales is what draws the transient orcas to the area.

The offshore killer whales can be seen in the later months of winter. They can be found in groups of up to one hundred, but sightings of them are rare.

killer whale

The third group is the resident killer whales. These swim down from the San Juan Islands in the winter to feed. With less salmon in Washington State, they are forced to come down to Monterey Bay to feed on fish and squid.

If you are lucky enough to get to see some orca “dive-bys,” then you will be amazed at these beautiful, graceful creatures.  

I would highly recommend for those who plan to go here to bring along your camera to get the perfect shots of these marine mammals.

Recording the perfect video of these killer whales is a great way for you to experience the beauty of these creatures out in the oceans. Whether it is photos or videos that you take, just don’t forget to look at them with your own eyes. Although they look amazing on a screen, they look much better through your eyes.

Southern California

Watching killer whales in Southern California is often tied to the yearly migrations of the gray whales between Alaska and Mexico. However, you may still be able to see some killer whales along the coast. 

killer whale

A marine mammal researcher, Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who leads the American Cetacean Society, has sighted killer whales in the area. According to Alisa, the sightings of killer whales in Southern California are not as common as in Monterey Bay. 

Killer whales can be seen in the Santa Barbara Channel where they feed on migrating gray whales. The gray whales migrate in this area around winter and spring, and this is when you can may be able to see killer whales.

Many whales can be seen around San Francisco, but are generally further away from shore than in other places in California.

The best time to see killer whales in the warm waters off the coast of Southern California is during December and January.

What are the Best Months to Watch Killer Whales?

The best months of the year to get some great sightings of killer whales depend on the location that you choose to go to. 

killer whale

If you choose to go to the San Juan Islands in Washington to do some whale watching, then the best months in the year to go there is from late May to October.  

However, if you choose to watch killer whales in Vancouver Island, then the recommended time to visit there is during the summer. Each place has its own perfect time, so it highly depends on the place that you want to visit.

The perfect time to see the Southern Residents is from May to October because this is when they come to feed on salmon that will be migrating from the Strait of Georgia to the Gulf Islands. There is a high possibility that you will see some orcas during this time.

As for the Northern Residents, they are more often spotted during the late summer months of August and July as they feed in the Johnstone Strait area.

There are a lot of species of whales that can be spotted throughout the Gulf and the San Juan Islands, but whales and dolphins do not stay in one place the whole year.

killer whale

Killer whales migrate to other places due to the changes in the temperature of the water as well as the level of food in a particular area.

Do Weather Conditions Affect the Possibility Of Seeing Killer Whales?

The weather has a large impact on the behavior of killer whales and therefore affects your chance of seeing one. However, killer whales are marine mammals, so they need to come to the surface to get their supply of oxygen.

The best time to go out on a whale-watching trip is on a calm day with little wind. Not only will you not have to cope with rough seas, but killer whales are easier to spot with clear waters.

Try to pick a day where the sky is clear with no fog.

What Types of Whales Can I Expect to See?

There is a variety of whales on the west coast of North America that you may see, such as orcas, humpbacks, minke whales, gray whales, and many other marine mammals.

Each of these whales can be spotted in the sea at different times of the year. However, the overall whale-watching season is often assumed to start from early March to the end of October.

References

Bernhard Grzimek, Schlager, N., Olendorf, D. and American (2003). Grzimek’s animal life encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale.

Carwardine, M. (2010). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Carwardine, M. (2017). Mark Carwardine’s guide to whale watching in North America : USA, Canada, Mexico, where to go, what to see. London: Bloomsbury.

Hadoram Shirihai, Jarrett, B., Graeme Cresswell and Kirwan, G.M. (2019). Whales, dolphins and seals : a field guide to the marine mammals of the world. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife.

Martin, T. (1990). The illustrated encyclopedia of whales and dolphins. Hodder.

Nowak, R.M. and Walker, E.P. (1991). Walker’s mammals of the world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B.G. and J  G  M Thewissen (2002). Encyclopedia of marine mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Richard John Harrison and Bryden, M.M. (1990). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Merehurst.

Williams, H. (1988). Whale nation. London: Cape.

Wilson, D.E. (1999). The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Inst. Press.

May, J. (1990). The Greenpeace book of dolphins. London: Century.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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