By Matt Villano, on July 4, 2014

Whale-watching north of Seattle

Fans of the Grateful Dead like to call themselves “Deadheads,” so it seems only natural that I, a lifelong fan of whales, call myself a “Whalehead.” It’s the name of my personal website, the suffix on my email, and the moniker I use to describe myself when people request that I tell them about myself.

The word also encapsulates the passion and interest that continues to bring me to the San Juan Islands of Washington State. This archipelago of seven major islands (and dozens of smaller ones) sits about 75 miles north of Seattle; the islands are accessible by ferries from Seattle and Anacortes, Washington. The region also is considered home to three distinct populations of orca whales—known as pods—that can be spotted regularly between April and October every year.

I visited the San Juans for the first time in 2001, and have returned more than a dozen times in the years since. Over the course of those visits, I’ve become an expert in watching whales in the area. Here are some tips.

Thar they blow, from shore

One of the reasons I love whale-watching in the San Juans is accessibility—resident orcas often swim so close to the coastline that you can see them from shore. I’m not talking about standing on a cliff with binoculars to see a tiny speck in the water; I’m talking about you, on a beach or a rock with nothing but your naked eyes and the whales swimming past you 10 feet away.

Watching Orcas, by kayak

Arguably the most incredible and awesome whale-watching experience of my life occurred in this fashion, at San Juan Island National Historical Park on San Juan Island’s southeastern tip. Specifically, the scene was along the shoreline inside American Camp, the part of the park occupied by the United States during our country’s joint occupation of the island (with Great Britain) in the 1800s.

I was sitting on a rock writing in a journal when I looked up to spot a baby orca spyhopping (that is, poking its head out of the water) to stare at me a few feet offshore. Momma surfaced about 15 yards behind the baby—once, twice, then again. Junior didn’t budge. Finally, Mom swam over and breached, splashing me and the calf in the process. I’m no biologist, but as a parent I interpreted the interlude as a form of discipline. It was awesome (in the truest sense of the word) and terrifying, all at the same time. (For more on this experience, check out the first part of this story I wrote back in 2009.)

Other great spots for shore-based whale-watching in the area include Lime Kiln Point State Park and the Westside Scenic Preserve west of Westside Road on San Juan Island, and the bluffs of Stuart Island, which is in Canada. Also, The Whale Museum, in Friday Harbor, is a great spot to learn about local orcas (the main photos for this story are from there).

Up close and personal

Another great way to watch orcas in and around San Juan Island is to take a kayak tour. A number of outfitters offer half-day and full-day tours out of Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor (on San Juan Island), Eastsound (on Orcas Island) and from Lopez Island. I’ve taken many of these tours; so long as you can guarantee that whales are in the area, none of them will disappoint.

Viewfinder Tip: For terrific information about orcas that frequent the San Juan Islands, check out The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.

A handful of operators also offer guided multiday tours that include kayak rental, tents, and all food for the duration of the trip. My favorite of this bunch: Sea Quest Expeditions. I took my first overnight kayak trip with this outfitter in the early 2000s and have traveled with them in some capacity at least five times since. All of my guides from this company have been knowledgeable about the whales and the geography alike. They also have demonstrated incredible respect for the animals, never getting too close.

Boat-based options

Perhaps the most common way to watch whales in the San Juan Islands is to take a boat-based cruise. A number of outfitters offer half-day boat trips to see resident orcas; many of those companies are listed here. On paper, these outfitters provide fast and comfortable passage to see the whales. In practice, however, the experience can be a bit invasive; many of the boats are noisy (both for humans and for whales), and in the height of summer there can be literally dozens of boats following one pod. To be fair, boat-based whale watching is a perfectly safe and legal way to see the whales. For me, however, this option is least desirable; with so many other less intrusive (and more affordable) whale-watching opportunities in the region, I only recommend boats as a last resort.

Where are your favorite places in North America to go whale-watching?