Viewing Orcas in the San Juans

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One of the high points that visitors look forward to when visiting Washington’s San Juan Islands is the possibility of sighting Orca whales.

The San Juan archipelago is made up of two distinct sub-species of whales, their differences based primarily on behavior. The Resident orcas are fish eaters – consuming up to 400 pounds of fish per day (primarily salmon). The resident orcas are known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SWKW) and are comprised of three different pods (J, K, and L). Salmon migrations typically happen during the summer months, and it is during these times that the076 cropped resident pods most actively gather in the San Juan’s to feed. In the winter months, they may follow the salmon far out to sea.

Transients, however, prefer to eat marine mammals. While the resident pods tend to stay in the San Juan area, the Transients travel from Alaska to mid-California cruise the coastal waters in search of their prey, which include harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins and other whales. These two groups do not interbreed or socialize. In fact they tend to avoid each other.

San Juan SailingBecause of the popularity of whale watching as a tourist attraction, several companies offer fast-moving boats out of the San Juan Islands and Canada. As a result, conservationists have campaigned for the enactment of laws in regards to viewing them, including staying 200 yards or more from the whales, avoiding crossing the whales’ path and reduced speeds. “Be Whale Wise” the slogan says.

With a sailboat and a top speed of 8 knots, we are at the whim of the whales. If we see whale boat activity, we’ll try to head that way, but it all depends on the direction they are heading. We’ve been very fortunate this past season. An Orca encounter  near Patos Island was one of many highlights on a recent chartered sailboat cruise by Northwest Sailing Adventures. We also encountered a pod in Haro Strait on the very next adventure cruise. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come!

We are privileged to share the waters with these magnificent creatures, and to let our charter boat guests see these amazing creatures in the wild. Contact us today to learn about charting our all-inclusive sailboat; imagine yourself sailing the waters from Bellingham Bay to the San Juan Islands. Your outdoor adventure awaits!