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Whale watching in the San Juan Islands

October 27, 2013

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A humpback whale puts on quite a show in the San Juan Islands!

May through October is a great time to go whale watching among Washington’s charming San Juan Islands. Sightings are not always guaranteed, but it is more than likely you will spot a whale or two along with a host of other marine life like lively dolphins, seals, porpoises and barking sea lions as well as regal birds of prey like bald eagles.

We visited San Juan in May and one of the things we really wanted to do was whale watching. We went with a highly recommended outfit called “Western Prince Whale & Wildlife tours” who are based out of Friday Harbor on the main island. Their tours are very popular so plan to book tickets in advance during high season. Western Prince has two types of whale watching boats available, one is a regular charter boat that is roomy and comfortable, the other is an rigid-hull inflatable boat that travels close to the water, but you will be seated all the time and outfitted in a full-length protective suit (the red boat in the pic above is the inflatable boat). The inflatable boat looked enticing and adventurous but we decided to go with a charter boat this time around.

We deliberately kept our expectations low for the whale watching since our luck with previous trips has been oddly disappointing. We went last year on a whale watching trip in Santa Cruz during peak season and came back with no sightings at all. The only time we’ve actually seen whales is when we were not even looking for them! Once it was on a snorkeling trip in Maui where we saw at least half a dozen grey whales cavorting in the ocean, and another time in Kauai when we were coasting along the Napali coast and spotted a grey whale slapping it’s fin on the surface. Little did we know what a grand surprise was in store for us with whale watching in San Juan!

We stayed on the island the night before, so it was straightforward to get to Friday Harbor port on time. If you are driving up from Seattle and taking the ferry from Anacortes to San Juan, plan in advance and take into account road traffic and long ferry lines. We chose the 12pm tour since it’s recommended to head out earlier in the day when the seas are calmer. The afternoon started out uneventfully. We coasted along among the magnificent San Juan islands, spotting dozens of seals sunbathing on rocks, and several bald eagles perched high above the tree-line. We were soon out to sea in our search for orcas, grey whales and humpbacks. San Juan has resident pods of orcas (killer whales) and several transient pods too but it would be unlikely to spot them on this visit since the orcas had not yet returned this season.

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Bald eagles perched high on a tree

All the boats in the San Juan islands keep in contact with each other to relay news about wildlife sightings and tips. We had barely been out of the harbor for an hour when our boat got word about a gregarious humpback whale who was making his/her way out of Friday Harbor! The very harbor we had just left behind! This was too good of an opportunity to miss! So our captain turned the boat back so we could intercept the humpback and observe it from a distance. We were told we might be lucky to spot the whale in the distance or it might do a dive with a tail flip and disappear by the time we got there.

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Fluke up!

Everybody on the boat was waiting with eager anticipation. As we retraced our path, we approached the spot where the humpback had last been seen. A few other whale watching boats were also waiting around to see what would happen. Whales are very unpredictable. They need to come up to breathe air, but nobody can tell when and where. They might decide to take a huge gulp of air and dive deep down and travel for miles before resurfacing again. It might be at least an hour before they surface again!

We waited patiently, as the naturalists aboard told us all about the whales – what they feed on, how they travel enormous distances for breeding, endangered species and what to do about conservation and so on. They also told us about the famous orca pods of San Juan. It was not orca season yet, so neither the resident orcas nor the transient pods had been spotted in San Juan’s waters.

Suddenly we saw white spray in the distance! The humpback whale had just surfaced and was breathing from it’s spout! Since it’s difficult to tell the gender of the whale, we don’t know if it was a male or female, but I’ll assume it was a “she” for now. After the “blow”, she dove back into the ocean and we got a clear view of her peduncle arch and tail fin – both fluke up and down. Everybody on the boat was thrilled to bits about having spotted a humpback whale! This trip was looking like it would be a success.

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The humpback whale breaching for the umpteenth time as two whale watching boats look on!

She came back up again and started slapping her pectoral fin on the surface. The loud “thud thud” of her fin slapping the water still echoes in my mind when I recall how powerful and massive she was. She kept slapping her pectoral fin for a long time, and then the real show started. She BREACHED! Before breaching, she went down for a while and we thought she might not surface again. But the deep dive was so that she could breach, and she came back up and literally jumped out of the water, giving us a wonderfully clear and spectacular view of her before falling sideways on the water with an enormous thud displacing tons of gallons of water!

What was amazing to watch was how she continued breaching nonstop for the next entire hour! Whales usually breach once, maybe twice if you are really lucky and then they take off. But this humpback whale was in a particularly gregarious mood and unusually energetic. She breached more than a dozen times! The naturalists on our boat were stunned too, they had never seen anything like this before. Breaching consumes an enormous amount of energy and whales don’t usually display such continuous playful behavior within such a short span of time. This was definitely one really happy humpback.

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A breach in progress

The photo at the beginning of this post was taken by naturalist Traci who was on our boat. She captured a great shot with the “Western Prince” red inflatable boat right next to the breaching humpback. The photo below was taken by Ivan Reiff who was captain on the “Western Prince” red inflatable boat! He captured the humpback’s spectacular “wave” as she breached right in front of our “Western Prince” charter boat. If you look closely at the white boat below, you can spot me in a magenta fleece jacket on the right side! After a dozen breaches, the humpback finally tired. She flapped her fins a few more times, showing off her arch and tail with fluke dives, and was soon headed on her way out to sea.

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As we made our way back to the harbor, the excitement and contentment on the boat was palpable. Everybody (including the naturalists) were still in disbelief about what we had just seen. A humpback whale, breaching more than a dozen times continuously, with magnificent shows of pectoral fin slapping, fluke up and down, tail slapping and blows – that happens only in the movies, right?! Well, yes … but once in a while, we get lucky enough to witness the show of a lifetime – the real deal – thanks to one happy and incredibly active humpback whale.

If you go:

When to go – Best months for whale watching are May through October.

Whom to go withWestern Prince Whale & Wildlife tours comes highly recommended on Yelp and from our experience they do a fantastic job. The knowledgeable captain and naturalists on board will teach you everything there is to know about whales and orcas and marine wildlife!

How to get there – If staying in Seattle, plan for a really early drive to Anacortes (approx 1.5 – 2 hour drive) to catch the ferry to San Juan (1 hour 20 min ride), to make it in time for the afternoon tour. As an alternative, we recommend you plan to stay in San Juan the night before and enjoy some “island” time before the whale watching tour.

What to carry – Weather is unpredictable, so make sure to dress in layers to stay warm, carry sunscreen, sunglasses, sun hat, binoculars, camera and a snack + drink for the trip which will last from 3-4 hours.

Whale watching behavior – A handy guide on what to look for on a whale watching trip!

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3 Comments
  1. We got to see them in NZ – loved it!

    • That’s great! Where did you see them in NZ? I will make a note of that for whenever we make a trip there 🙂 NZ is very high on our travel list!

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