Sea Kayaking with Orca Whales
in the San Juan Islands
Sea Kayaking with whales in the San Juan Islands. It is a very exciting notion, and a much touted activity here in the San Juans.
A common question that we get asked every year is “Are we going to see whales?” It’s a good question that really needs to be accurately addressed in the sea kayaking industry out here in the San Juan Islands.
Most kayak outfitters have pictures that have captured fantastic moments of guides and guests kayaking with the whales, and why not? The images are enticing, and appeal to most people’s sense of adventure, but is it something that can be expected on any given day? Well, here’s our take on the subject…
Megan and I worked for years out on San Juan Island as a whale-watch boat captain, as naturalists, and as professional kayak guides, we also have been active whale spotters since the early days of the Whale Spotting Network. This experience gave us many memorable moments, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the whales’ movements during the summer months.
What is the “prime orca whale viewing area”?
The Seattle Aquarium defines “core Orca habitat” as the entire Georgia Basin. That’s a lot of territory—it includes the Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Rosario Strait, Georgia Strait, and the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands. It’s a massive area…many hundreds of square miles of open water.
Orca whales travel in large groups and are always on the move. The salmon that they depend upon in the summer months funnel into this inland sea as they head for the rivers of the mainland. The orcas follow the fish. They often travel over one hundred miles in a single day. One morning they may be near San Juan Island, by afternoon they could be up by the Fraser River in Canada, and the next morning they may be feeding of of Burrows Island, near Anacortes (Actually, this circuit is a very typical scenario during the summer).
Sea kayaking with whales is pure luck and good timing.
Orcas are very fast moving animals, a leisurely pace may be 6-7mph, top speed is around 30mph. A kayak typically travels at about 2-3mph. In other words, you cannot manufacture a whale sighting by kayak. All we can do is maximize our opportunities by having the access to the latest whale sighting information in order for the trip leaders to make decisions that will optimize an encounter. Our membership in the Pacific Whale Watch Association, and the owners’ good relationship with many whale-watch operators, ensures that we have the latest updated information.
Straightforward answers and realistic expectations.
We choose to run our business in a straightforward, open, and transparent manner. Although we paddle in the most likely areas to encounter Orca whales, we don’t want to build up your expectations of kayaking with whales just to get you to sign up with us. That’s why you won’t see graphs showing unrealistic statistics. Our belief is that nobody can make promises about wildlife sightings of any sort. The animals are wild and are not here simply for our entertainment.
We would rather earn your business by providing a unique product in a remarkable area. There is no need to make vague promises because we are good at what we do. Our guests love our trips and come back year after year.
We do kayak often with whales during the summer months, but the frequency and proximity of those sightings is determined by the whales, not us. Additionally, we abide by the federal law regarding the endangered species listing of the Southern Resident Orca Whales. We will never intentionally approach them in a way that would contradict the law or the whales well-being.
Kayaking with whales, in our opinion, should remain what it always has been…an unbelievable bonus to an already great kayak trip in the San Juans. Sea kayaking is a great way to really experience the San Juan Islands. Nothing else gets you closer to the essence of the place.
Whether you decide to come out with us, or some other kayaking outfit, we certainly hope that your experience is entertaining, educational, and something that you will want to do again. And we hope that we helped shed some light on the subject of kayaking with whales. Please call if you have any questions.
Erik and Megan Schorr
Anacortes Kayak Tours