Courtesy San Juan Islands Whale and Wildlife Tours

Seattle Whale Watching 101

Take full advantage of whale watching season in the Pacific Northwest.

By Anna Edlund


There’s nothing quite like seeing Puget Sound’s largest and most majestic residents from an up-close and personal vantage point. While we’re lucky enough to spot Orcas, gray, and humpback whales year round in the Pacific Northwest, southern resident Orcas typically travel through the San Juan Islands May through October. The Sound is home to transient pods as well (mammal-eating orcas) who make regular rounds in search of harbor seals, sea lions and porpoises for their next meal. With a bit of luck, you’re likely to see one of the two on any given tour.

There are a number of places along the coast to catch a glimpse of whales from shore, and local tour options span guided kayak and boat trips off the San Juan Islands to catching a boat or seaplane right out of Seattle. Whichever whale spotting route you choose, don’t forget a camera!

Courtesy San Juan Islands Whale and Wildlife Tours

Before You Go

While most outfits guarantee a 90 percent chance of a spotting a whale, you might consider booking an extra trip if it’s at the top of your bucket list. Some companies offer a complimentary outing if your trip ends sans sighting—check out the policy before booking.

Whales are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, so many boats keep a respectful distance–the regulated distance for most species is 100 yards; Bigg’s (transient) orcas is 200 yards; and endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales are 300 yards. You can find more info here.

Come prepared if you’re going out on the water. Bring warm layers, binoculars, and a camera. Snacks for the trip won’t hurt, either.

From Seattle

You can try whale watching from the shore at Alki Beach in West Seattle, just a short drive or water taxi trip away from downtown. The beach is a popular spot for seals and their pups to rest, making it a draw for Orcas as well. You’re more likely to spot orcas here during the fall and winter months, but transient whales can be seen here year round. (Pro tip: Bring along a pair of binoculars.)

Find more onshore whale watching spots in the region at the Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Viewpoints Map.

For a whale-centric adventure that leaves directly from Seattle, look no further than FRS Clipper. Their half-day tour is a great option for those who have limited time and are focused solely on whale watching. Enjoy cruising across the Salish Sea in search of these majestic creatures under the guidance of an onboard expert naturalist.

Three generations of family ownership have made the tour operators at Puget Sound Express some of the most knowledgeable around. Depart from either Port Townsend or Edmonds (just 17 miles north of Seattle) for a whale watching tour through the Sound on one of their three ships, all equipped with indoor seating to keep the ocean’s chill away.

San Juan Safaris operating out of Friday Harbor has a variety of options for whale spotting hopefuls, including flight packages where you can take the scenic route to your tour via a Kenmore Air seaplane departing from Lake Union or Lake Washington (keep an eye out for whales on the way).

From the San Juan Islands

Whale watching and wildlife cruises launch from Friday Harbor with San Juan Excursions and Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours, Roche Harbor with San Juan Outfitters, and Outer Island Excursions offers boat tours out of Anacortes, Lopez Island, and Orcas Island that explore the surrounding waters. Along with a high likelihood of whale sightings, these companies pride themselves on trips featuring a host other marine wildlife, from sea lions to porpoises.

Feeling adventurous? Crystal Seas Kayak lets you get as close to the action as possible with kayak trips ranging from a few hours to a day-long excursion through the San Juan Islands (add on a bike tour if you want to stretch your sea legs). The outfit also runs a Whale and Wildlife Cruise that provides similar views from the comfort of a sightseeing ship.



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