Sea Kayaking with Whales in the San Juan Islands
Orca whales, also known as Killer whales, are perhaps the most iconic symbol of the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Every summer thousands of visitors come here in hopes of catching a glimpse of these beautiful animals, and encountering Orca whales is one of the most highly sought after experiences.
The San Juan Islands are blessed with two populations of Orca whales that move through the area. One group is called the “Southern Residents” and the others are known as “Biggs”, or “Transient” Orca whales. The Southern Residents are fish eaters, while the Bigg’s Orcas primarily feed on mammals such as seals and porpoise. These two whale populations make the San Juan Islands one of the best places in the world to see Orcas.
Nothing quite compares with the feeling of floating in a kayak on the surface of the water and seeing a family of whales passing by. Occasionally the sounds of their songs can even reverberate through the hulls of the kayaks and, because we move silently, the sharp sounds of their breathing pierces the air. The additional thrill of being in proximity to such a large and intelligent creature is truly a world-class experience.
One of the most common questions that we get asked every year is “Are we going to see killer whales?” It’s a really good question that we feel needs to be answered as accurately as possible.
From the very first days of our company Anacortes Kayak Tours has tried to manage our guests expectations. Because the whales are such a popular attraction in the San Juan Islands sometimes people get the misconception that a whale sighting is as easy as falling off of a log. It isn’t.
There are difficulties with making claims about the possibility of “kayaking with whales”. The main reason is that Orca whales rarely stay in one place. They are fast and constantly moving, and can often cover more than 100 miles in a single day. By contrast relatively slow-moving sea kayaks cover far less territory, with 5-10 miles being the average distance traveled per day. What this means is that no kayak outfitter can promise a whale sighting on any given day. There is a huge element of just getting lucky and being in the right place at the right time. Kayak tours are not designed to be whale watch trips, we move too slowly for that.
Why is whale watching in the San Juan Islands so popular?
The last 30 years has seen the interest in whale watching growing worldwide, and the San Juan Islands are no exception.
Part of the reason for our popularity is that there were many summers when the Resident orca whales travelled like clockwork around the San Juans. We could often accurately predict where they would be simply based on what the tidal currents were doing. One predominant travel pattern those days was a clockwise circuit around the islands. They would very often be seen on the west side of San Juan in the morning and afternoon before moving north into Canada and looping back down the east side of the archipelago near Anacortes. The west side of San Juan Island became synonymous with Orca sightings and they even nicknamed a state park there “Whale Watch Park”.
The regularity of whales being present allowed for a robust eco-tourism industry to develop in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
What has changed?
In the last few years this pattern of movement has changed dramatically with the whales appearing less and less frequently near San Juan Island. The fabled “west side” of San Juan Island, once considered one of the best places on the planet to be able to see wild Orca whales, has perhaps been the most affected by these changes. The Resident orcas are choosing different areas to forage and are spending much less time there.
In 2017 the Center for Whale Research, located on the west side of San Juan Island, reported just 12 days out of 150 days (May 1st - September 27th) when the Southern Resident Orca whales were seen near San Juan Island. This was during the prime sea kayaking season in the San Juan Islands. In 2016 there was a similar lack of Orca whale sightings on the west side of the San Juans, with weeks going by without whale encounters.
What does this mean for kayaking with whales?
Luckily, for whale enthusiasts, there has been another remarkable change in the San Juan Islands. This has dramatically increased whale viewing opportunities for visitors to this region and whale watching companies have been able to show their customers whales on almost every trip.
Sea kayaking with whales is all about good luck and good timing.
Although we paddle in areas where whales are found, we don’t want to build up your expectations of whale encounters just to sell you a tour. Our belief is that nobody can make promises about wildlife sightings of any kind and we know how much you will enjoy the trip regardless of what animals are in the area when you join us. We would rather earn your business by providing a unique product in a remarkable area. Our guests love our trips and many come back year after year.
We do get lucky sometimes and kayak with whales during the summer months, but the frequency and proximity of those sightings is determined by the whales, not us. Every sighting is incidental and beyond our control. When we do see whales you can also be comfortable knowing that our guides will always act in a manner that protects the whales’ best interests. We are interlopers in their homes and so we want to be respectful of their space.
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 experience the San Juan Islands. Nothing else gets you closer to the place, physically and spiritually.
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 in the San Juan Islands.
Please call if you have any questions or concerns.
Erik and Megan Schorr, Anacortes Kayak Tours
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.Erik Schorr