The San Juan Islands, Salish Sea, and Puget Sound are among the world’s best whale-watching destinations, with more than 500,000 people visiting yearly. It is not hard to see why with up to five whale species, along with dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions.
Between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia, the San Juan Islands can be found in the Northern region of Puget Sound.
The San Juan Islands are made up of 172 islands and reefs. Due to their nutrient-rich color, the islands lie in the Salish Sea, also known as the emerald sea.
The Salish Sea includes the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the surrounding waters.
The Salish Sea is shared between the province of British Colombia in Canada and Washington in the U.S.
Killer whale, humpback whale, minke whale, Pacific white-sided dolphin, Dall’s porpoise, harbor Porpoise.
Gray whale, fin whale.
Other Marine Mammals
Californian sea lion, Northern fur seal, harbor seal, northern elephant seal, Steller sea lion.
San Juan Island – Roche Harbor, Friday Harbor. Orcas Island – Orcas, Eastsound, Deer Harbor. Fidalgo Island – Anacortes. Langley – Lopez Island, Lummi Island, Whidbey Island. Bellingham, Everett, Edmonds, Port Angeles, Port Townsend, Seattle.
When To Go
The best time to visit is from April to October. Some tour operators are open from March to November. The best time to see the Southern Resident killer whales is between May and September.
How To Get to the San Juan Islands
The three largest islands are San Juan, Lopez, and Orcas, which can be reached by passenger ferry. On the ferry from Washington State, keep an eye on the water as you may see killer whales, minke whales, harbor porpoises, and Pacific white-sided dolphins on the way to the islands.
Do I Need a Passport For Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands?
As the Salish Sea is shared between the two neighboring countries of the United States and Canada, many people wonder if you need a passport to make this journey to see whales and other wildlife in the area.
The US-Canada border runs through the middle of the Salish Sea. However, as guests are landing back at their embarkation point, a passport is not required. Due to this, whale-watching boats can move across the border with no restrictions, allowing them to follow the whales, giving you a better whale-watching experience.
Can I See the Whales Without Traveling to the San Juan Islands?
The Salish Sea is available to access from Vancouver and Victoria in Canada. In the U.S., the Salish Sea can be accessed from Seattle, with many tours leaving at all times of the day from all three cities.
However, most whale-watching tour boats leave from San Juan Island, from Friday Harbor.
There are twenty different ports in British Columbia and Washington State. From these ports, one hundred boats operate in the Salish Sea as part of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
New York is fantastic for watching whales from shore or out at sea. Please find out the best places in this article I wrote.
Can I See the Whales and Dolphins Without Going on a Boat?
There are many opportunities for land-based whale watching in the area.
On the west side of San Juan Island is Lime Kiln Point State Park. Also known as Whale Watch Park, this is a great place to see killer whales with your feet on firm ground.
You may also be able to catch sight of the gray whale, minke whales, Dall’s porpoise, and Pacific white-sided dolphins.
The best places to watch for marine life are over Haro Strait, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Rosario Strait.
Alki Point and the Seattle Aquarium are great places to watch for whales in Seattle, and on Whidbey Island, I recommend Coupeville or Langley.
I have written an article if you would like to know how to prepare for a whale watching trip. You can find the article here.
Is it Safe for Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises?
It can get crowded in the Salish Sea with whale-watching tours, but the large tour operators are careful in keeping strict rules on how they act around marine mammals.
They follow local regulations, which include not getting too close to the whales. Federal laws indicate that boats stay 200 yards away while keeping their path clear and free of disturbances for 400 yards.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has patrol vessels keeping a close eye on boats around the resident whales during busy seasons.
The Soundwatch Boater Education Program also puts its staff and volunteers on the water, monitoring boaters. They also educate people on how to cause the slightest disturbance to marine mammals.
To minimize disturbance to the whales, the fleet of whale-watching vessels is spread out to different pods and groups of whales.
Which Whales am I Likely To See?
The killer whale is also commonly known as the Orca, a name taken from its binomial name of Orcinus orca.
Killer whales are the largest dolphin family members, growing from 6 to 8 meters long and weighing up to 5.9 tons. Females are smaller than males.
Killer whales are one of the fastest marine mammals due to their size and incredible strength, reaching speeds up to 56 km/h. They have a black upper side and a white underside.
The Salish Sea is the home to a group of killer whales called the Southern Residents. There are three pods of killer whales as part of the Southern Residents. These are made up of 78 killer whales.
The first pod is designated as J-Pod, with 24 orcas. K-Pod is the smallest, with 19 members, and L-Pod is the largest, with 35 individuals.
If you are lucky, you may be able to spot members of the Northern Resident killer whales, but these are seen once every few years this far South.
The three pods of Southern Residents use this area as feeding grounds. The killer whales will feed on salmon, which can be found swimming through the riverways on their way to spawning in nearby rivers.
Most feeding occurs on the western side of San Juan Island in the Haro Strait. They can also be found feeding off the west coast of Vancouver Island in Swiftsure Bank and up to Tofino. K-Pod and L-Pod will travel away from the area during the cold months, traveling South to Monterey, California, and Haida Gwaii.
Canada has changed its rules to improve the Southern Resident’s access to food by reducing commercial and recreational fishing for Chinook salmon.
They have also created new sanctuaries for the Southern Residents, closing these areas to vessels. These sanctuaries are in place from June 1st through October 31st.
These sanctuaries are at Saturna and Pender Islands and Swiftsure bank, the most critical feeding areas for killer whales. Only emergency vessels and vessels for indigenous food and ceremonial and social fisheries will be allowed in these areas.
Canada has also introduced new distances that vessels must stay back from the Southern Residents at 437 yards. An introduction of a slower speed of 7 knots has been submitted for all smaller vessels within one kilometer of killer whales.
Transient (Bigg’s) Killer Whales
As well as the Southern Residents, there are also transient killer whales. Whereas the three pods of Southern Residents can be seen in the area at certain times of the year, transient killer whales can be seen for one day or several times before disappearing into other waters.
Transient killer whales are generally in the area to feed. An increase in sea lions and seals brings them to the Salish Sea. They have also been seen attacking porpoises and are known to attack gray whales.
What Sounds do They Make?
The Southern Residents are very active in their vocalizations. A variety of squeaks, screams, squawks, and whistles can be heard listening to a hydrophone. J-Pod, K-Pod, and L-Pod all have their distinct vocalizations.
The transient (Bigg’s) killer whales are generally spent unless they have made a kill. They keep silent so that seals and sea lions in the area cannot hear them before they strike. Many larger tour operators are equipped with hydrophones onboard and will let you use them.
The minke whale grows between 21-30 ft (6.5-9m) and weighs between 5.5-10 tons.
Their diet consists mainly of krill, other crustaceans, and small fish in schools. They have a single calf after a gestation period of 10-11 months.
They are the smallest and most abundant of the rorqual whales. They are slim, with a pointed head, and rarely show much of themselves through the water.
There are three subspecies of the minke whale; North Atlantic, North Pacific, and dwarf minke whale. Minke whales can be seen from spring to fall in the Salish Sea, with the best times to see them in July and August. In the colder months, they move further south.
They can be seen around Boundary Pass and Haro Strait around the Gulf Islands. They can also be seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Feeding takes place around Salmon and Hein Bank.
The humpback whale grows between 46-56 ft (14-17m) with a weight of 28-45 tons. They approach whale-watching boats and are inquisitive. Humpback whales are very popular with whale watchers due to their breaching, lob tailing, spy hopping, and flipper-slapping.
They have a gestation period of 11-12 months and give birth to one calf. Following a long absence, humpback whales can be seen year-round in the area, with up to 25 humpback whales in the peak months.
May to November is considered the best time to see humpback whales in the area.
The gray whale grows between 46-49 ft (11-15m) and reaches a weight of 18-40 tons. Females produce larger than males. The diet of a gray whale consists of schooling fish, crabs, amphipods, and mysids.
Gray whales frequently approach whale-watching boats and have lots of surface activity. They give birth to a single calf after a gestation period of 12-13.5 months.
They travel a considerable distance, sometimes up to 12,400 miles, to journey between their feeding and breeding grounds. The feeding grounds are in the Arctic, in the Beaufort, Bering, and Chuckchi seas.
The gray whale’s breeding ground is in Baja, California, and between here and the Arctic feeding grounds, some gray whales can be spotted in the Salish Sea.
The gray whales that enter the area can generally be spotted around Boundary Bay early in the season. Around Camano and Whidbey’s islands, a group of gray whales can be seen from February until June.
Pacific White-sided Dolphin
The Pacific white-sided dolphin grows from 7.5-8.2ft (2.3-2.5m) with weights between 360-440 lbs. They can be found around the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, Alaska, Olympic Coast, California, Vancouver Island, and Baja, California.
They have a pattern of gray and black along the flank with dark flippers and flukes. They have a lighter underside with a white lower jaw. They give birth to a single calf after 12 months.
Pods up to 150 can be seen in the Salish Sea, with some as large as 300. The Pacific White-sided dolphin can be seen around Vancouver in Howe Sound and the Southern Strait of Georgia.
The Dall’s porpoise is a fast swimmer who will bow-ride alongside a ship but rarely breaches from the water. They grow from 5.6 to 7.9ft (1.7-2.4m) and weigh between 300 and 400 lb.
They have a small, stocky shape with black and white markings. The Dall’s porpoise has a white edge to its dorsal fin, which is in the center.
The population of Dall’s porpoises has declined recently, with an increase in harbor porpoises in the area. Dall’s porpoises are deep-sea dwellers, and as harbor porpoise numbers dropped, Dall’s porpoises moved into their territory. Dall’s porpoises can be observed in the Salish Sea year-round.
The harbor porpoise grows from 4.3-6.6ft (1.3-2m) and weighs 110-165 lb. Harbor porpoises have dark on their upper side with a lighter underside.
They have a small, indistinct beak and one or more stripes from their mouths to the flipper. The Harbor porpoise can be found in the Salish Sea year-round. They are hard to spot, with whale watchers typically seeing their back and uniformly colored dorsal fin.
In the 1940s, harbor porpoises were one of the most frequently sighted cetaceans in Puget Sound, but by the 1970s had almost disappeared.
Since 2007, sightings of harbor porpoises have increased. In the last aerial survey of the Salish Sea in 2003, there were approximately 3,100 harbor porpoises in the Salish Sea. Increased strandings in the area since 2003 have led scientists to believe that the population of harbor porpoises has grown.
The harbor porpoises in Puget Sound can be seen in Admiralty Inlet, between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. Harbor porpoises can also be seen off Kitsap County near Point No Point and Port Madison Bay between Indianola and Bainbridge Island.
Harbor porpoises can also be seen between Blake Island and Manchester. They can be confused with the Dall’s porpoise and the Pacific white-sided dolphin.
Please find out how whales evolved in this article I wrote
Steller Sea Lion
The Steller sea lion, also known as the northern sea lion, is a sea lion species typically found in the north Pacific. They are considered the largest species of eared seals and take their names from the naturalist George Wilhelm Steller, who first described them in the mid-18th century.
These animals measure about 2.3 to 2.9 meters in length on average and weigh between 240 to 350 kilograms. Males are slightly longer than females and can be distinguished by broader foreheads and thicker hair around their necks.
Steller sea lions usually live in the subarctic coastal waters and spend most of their time in the water. They are skilled and opportunistic marine predators. They primarily feed on a wide variety of fish and are hunted by killer whales or great white sharks.
Most Steller sea lions can be found North of Washington State. They can be found in the Salish Sea in the spring, resting on offshore rocks and remote beaches.
Please find out how whales evolved in this article I wrote
California Sea Lion
The California sea lion is an eared seal native to the western part of North America. Males are larger than females, with males weighing up to 350 kilograms while females up to 100 kilograms.
They can be found laid out on sandy or rocky beaches. They feed on fish and various squid species, and predators include killer whales and great white sharks. Californian sea lions are intelligent animals.
The population of Californian sea lions has been slowly increasing. In 1986, there were only 134 in the area of Puget Sound. In 1995, there were 1,113 sea lions. They can be seen in the area in the peak season of April or May.
Northern Elephant Seal
The Northern elephant seal is one of two existing species of sea elephants. Their name comes from their large size and the beak that characterizes males of this species, which is used to make loud roaring noises, especially during mating.
Males are a lot bigger than females. Their dimensions are typically about 4 to 5 meters in body length for males, while females measure about 2.5 to 3.5 meters.
Males usually weigh about 1500 to 2300 kilograms, while females range between 400 to 900 kilograms. They primarily feed on fish and squids. A successful male can impregnate up to 50 females in one season.
Northern elephant seals migrate from California to Mexico and the Gulf of Alaska’s feeding areas twice a year. Northern elephant seals can be seen in the Salish sea after the summer molt traveling to Alaska.
The harbor seal is also known as the common seal. Their color is brownish gray with light or dark spots, and the color is lighter on the underbody. Harbor seals measure 1.85 m and weigh from 55 to 168 kg. This carnivore eats squids, crustaceans, shrimp, crabs, mollusks, and fish.
They can usually be found on rocks, beaches, and glacier ice, rarely moving from too far, but they rush to deeper water if there is danger. They are excellent swimmers and have a lifespan of 20 to 35 years.
The harbor seal is the most commonly seen marine mammal in the Salish Sea and Puget Sound. They can be found throughout the region year-round. They can be found resting on land, including beaches, mudflats, rocks, reefs, docks, and floats.
The fin is a large whale growing between 59-88 ft (18-27m), although slightly smaller in the Northern Hemisphere. They reach a weight of 34-100 tons. There are several thousand off the West Coast of America.
They have pigmentation on their heads that is different on both sides, rare for a whale. This is said to be to confuse their prey. They are the second-largest living animal on Earth after the blue whale.
Fin whales are scarce now in the Salish Sea, although they were once common. In 2019 a sighting southwest of Dungeness Spit near Sequim in Washington was the first in several years. The previous sighting was in 2015.
If you or someone you know loves whales, check out these great whale gifts on Amazon by clicking here.
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 world’s marine mammals. 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: Mercyhurst.
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 is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.