Wildlife in the San Juan Islands


The San Juan Islands are home and host to a variety of magnificent wildlife. Some make their homes here year round, others seasonally, still others only infrequently. One never forgets their first whale encounter. Yet even for those of us who call the Salish Sea home and see these creatures often, it never fails to inspire a sense of awe. This is a gallery, a small sampling of some of the creatures you are likely to see from the deck of Diminuendo. Although sightings are never certain, we’ve learned when and where various animals are likely to be seen. We 100% guarantee that you might see whales! The photos you’ll find here are not of professional quality. Most were taken with inexpensive digital cameras or cell phones. But we hope they will inspire you to join us aboard and create your own memories. Maybe you’ll catch some great photos of your own!

Orcas (Killer Whales)

The orca, or killer whale is the most revered of all of the denizens of the deep found in the waters of Pacific Northwest. Many native tribes refer to them as “black fish” and honor them as the spirits of their ancestors. Of course they are not fish at all and interestingly, the killer whale is not a whale, but in fact the world’s largest species of dolphin. They are a highly intelligent and social animal. Family groups or “pods” are usually led my a senior female; theirs is a matriarchal  society. There are two distinct populations of orcas found here, the transients and the southern residents. The transients, which prey primarily on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, and whales are thriving. The southern residents, comprised of J, K, and L pods however are in peril. Their primary prey, the chinook salmon are in dwindling supply. Countless generations of orcas have learned and perfected a hunting technique specifically to target this fish. But with pollution, habitat depletion, and over fishing, there are just not enough chinook to sustain the population of orcas. A contributing factor is marine vessel traffic. The underwater noise created by an ever increasing number of ships and boats interferes with their ability to hunt using echo location. In the presence of plentiful other fish, the residents are starving. Although steps are being made to mitigate the threats, it is feared that it will be too little too late. Click HERE for video of them in action.

Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are another frequent visitor in our waters. They employ a variety of techniques to hunt their prey such as herring. Instead of teeth, humpbacks have huge feather-like baleen plates in their mouths with which they filter out small fish and other prey. In deep water, they sometimes employ a “bubble net” technique. Using echo location, they find a school of fish. One whale dives and emits a stream of bubbles as it circles the fish from below. This corrals the fish into an ever smaller area. Then together, all of the whales rise up through the middle of the school, scooping huge quantities of water and fish into their gaping maws. With their tongues, they squeeze out the water through their baleen plates and gulp down the fish. Their coordination is astounding! When bubble netting, each member of a group will always rise in the same position relative to one another. In shallower water or when hunting alone they employ other techniques.

Humpbacks are known to put on quite a show by breaching, fluking, finning, or spy-hopping. They seem to pay no notice to boats in their midst as they go about their business. It is an incredible thrill when a whale that dwarfs your boat approaches close. And if you ever smell their breath, you’ll wish you hadn’t!

Minke Whales

The smallest member of the baleen whale is the minke whale. They too frequent these waters. We’ve noticed that when a large group of sea gulls are gathered and actively fishing, the minkes will sometimes go after the same school of fish as the gulls. Click HERE for video.

Porpoises and Dolphins

An encounter with Dall’s porpoises is the highlight of any cruise when they appear. They love nothing better than to ride the bow wave of passing boats, eliciting squeals of delight from all aboard. At times they are so close you could almost touch them. The Dall’s porpoise is one of the world’s fastest marine mammals. You’d never know it to look at them due to their rather pudgy shape. Their speed serves them well in escaping the jaws of transient orcas who would love to have them for a nice snack. Click HERE for video of the fun!

Harbor porpoises are the smaller cousins of the Dall’s porpoises. We see them just about every day but they are notoriously hard to photograph due to their shy nature. We often spot them in tide rips and over falls or areas where the currents converge.

On occasion, we encounter Pacific White Sided dolphins. They too love to ride a bow wave. But unlike the Dall’s, they are sleek and streamlined in appearance with beautiful coloring and markings.

Seals, Sea Lions, and Otters

Harbor seals are likely to be one of the first critters you’ll see after getting under way. You’ll see their heads pop up and look at you. Later, you’ll see them basking in the sun on rocks along the way. They are generally a mottled gray in color with much lighter colored pups. Their numbers have exploded in recent years, nearing maximum sustainable numbers. True seals can be distinguished from the much larger sea lions by their lack of external ears and the fact that they are unable to use their hind flippers as legs. Instead, they undulate their bodies in an almost comical way to get around on shore. They’re kind of cute!

Click HERE for video of one in fishing in Friday Harbor!

Steller sea lions are often seen on or around a few reefs and rocks along the way. These guys are not cute! Males can be up to eleven feet long and weigh over a ton. So large are they that they can be seen from a considerable distance. Sea Lions are considered eared seals. Able to fully articulate their hind flippers, they are much more nimble on land than their smaller cousins. And in the water, they are truly acrobatic! Steller sea lions are somewhat golden or reddish in color.

Although more common in the south Puget Sound region, California sea lions Are also seen in the San Juans occasionally. They are slightly smaller than the Stellers and are dark brown or gray in color. They’re agile enough to launch themselves up onto docks or buoys to rest.

It’s not uncommon to spot a raft or a romp of river otters. These are not to be confused with sea otters which are not found in the area. These playful critters are a lot of fun to watch as they frolic in the water or ashore.

Birds of the islands

Perhaps the most impressive birds you’re likely encounter are our national symbol, the bald eagle. You’ll see them soaring along shores or perched atop tall trees. as often as not, a murder of crows will be pestering them mercilessly.

You’ll also usually see great blue herons wading the shallows atop their spindly legs, occasionally pausing to snatch a fish from the water with its rapier-like beak. Though not as common, you’ll sometimes see ospreys. Fifty years ago, it was rare to see any of these magnificent birds. All were threatened with extinction due to the widespread use of the insecticide DDT, which found its way into the water and into the fish on which these birds prey. The DDT caused the bird’s egg shells to be thin and brittle, causing most eggs to be crushed by the adult birds as they sat on their clutch. With the ban of DDT, the bird population has rebounded in significant numbers.

Other birds common in the islands are sea gulls, turkey vultures, Canada geese and ravens. On a couple of occasions, we’ve even seen Spotted owls on Sucia Island!

When hiking the islands, of course you’ll encounter a variety of song birds, including the Washington state bird, the goldfinch.

Non-native critters

Cruise Spieden Channel along the arid, savanna-like south shore of Spieden Island early in the day and you’re likely to see herds of exotic Mouflon Sheep, Fallow deer, and Sitka deer. In the ’70s and ’80s, these animals were released on the island to provide game for sport hunting. The venture eventually fizzled out but the animals remain. Mouflon sheep were also raised by settlers on nearby Stuart Island and though rarely seen due to their shy nature, herds still wander the island.

Red Foxes can be found on San Juan Island, mostly near Cattle Point. Foxes were introduced to the islands to help control the rabbit population.

Yaks (also known as the grunting ox) are the latest arrivals at Ericksen Farm on Stuart Island. Smaller and more docile than cattle, they are a welcome addition.


Snakes are few and far between in western Washington and the San Juan islands. On rare occasions, you might come across a garter snake like the one you see here. They are a small, shy non-venomous species. They feed mostly on bugs and slugs(!) This particular snake we found atop Suicide Bluff on Stuart Island when we disturbed his afternoon siesta. So anxious was he to avoid us that he hurled himself off the cliff! It seems Suicide Bluff is an apt name.

Last and perhaps least…..

The banana slug!

But wait; THERE’S MORE!!!

We’ve just shared a few of our favorite critters here. Come sailing with us and you’re sure to see many for yourself. We’ll see ya aboard!