The San Juan Islands of Washington are famous as the top orca whale watching location in the United States. The first park in the world dedicated to whale watching was created here. Easily accessed from Seattle, the sheltered waters of the San Juans are the perfect place for beginners to kayak with killer whales.
Of all orca whale sightings in Washington state, over 95% occur in just one narrow corridor along the extreme western edge of the San Juan Islands. This is where the killer whales do nearly all of their hunting and playing. And it’s the exact location where Sea Quest kayak trips take you orca whale watching! Sea Quest pioneered orca whale-watching kayak tours in the San Juan Islands over 30 years ago and we are the leading experts. Nearly all of our San Juan Island kayak trips are guided by biologists and environmental scientists, and all of our guides can tell you about the lives of these amazing animals.
Our sea kayaking routes are planned to maximize your chances to kayak with orcas. We don’t see them every time, but about 2/3rds of our kayak camping trip guests enjoy killer whale sightings. Nearly half of our day trip guests also experience the thrill of an orca whale encounter. These impressive results represent an average derived from the last 10 years of kayak tours; individual years can be better or worse. Most of the annual variation is due to the number of chinook salmon present in the San Juan Islands and even the top fishery biologists cannot accurately predict salmon returns. Remember, these are wild orca whales and they don’t perform on schedule, so we can’t guarantee success on every kayak trip!
As good as results have been, they were even better in our first 20 years of whale watching kayak tours in the San Juan Islands. The recent decline in orca sightings is due to a collapse of chinook salmon, a preventable tragedy that began about 25 years ago after decades of careless destruction of spawning habitat in American rivers and streams. The chinook population is currently so low that it has severely impacted the health and fertility of our most famous local killer whale families known as J-, K-, and L-pods. These pods comprise a unique cultural and genetic group that specializes in hunting chinook for about 90% of their diet. These “salmon orca” are known to the scientific community as “southern resident killer whales” and their continued survival is in question. In 2005 our local “salmon orcas” were listed under the Endangered Species Act due to long periods of malnutrition and a rise in mortality. Unfortunately, the government agencies responsible for recovering both chinook and orca whales are grossly ineffective as their leaders put political concerns ahead of fish, whales, or a healthy environment for everyone.
Sightings of salmon orcas have been gradually declining, but encounters with mammal-hunting (Bigg’s) killer whales have risen dramatically. While salmon orcas struggle to find enough chinook, Bigg’s killer whales are finding more prey every year. Thanks to improved regulation of bottom-fisheries, sea lion colonies that had collapsed due to starvation are now thriving again. Their recovery has led to a doubling of the Bigg’s killer whale community in our region. These mammal-eating killer whales also depend on a stable population of harbor seals that number over 5000 in the San Juan Islands – one of the densest concentrations of large predators anywhere on Earth! Porpoises and an occasional whale round out the menu of this exceptionally large and stealthy variety of killer whale.
We now recognize two species of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, and perhaps five others throughout the world. Although two kinds share the waters of the Salish Sea and can be seen in the same waterway at times, they do not interact in any way and have not interbred for 700, 000 years! Their social culture, language, diet and hunting techniques are too distinct to allow it. No one knows how they will fare in the future, but they will only survive if humans decide to be good stewards of our shared marine environment. One is totally reliant on chinook salmon, the other on marine mammals – and humans hold the key to both.
Click here to look at our whale watching kayak trip maps with the killer whale feeding and traveling routes highlighted.
Be sure to check out our blog or Facebook page for reports on our recent whale watching successes. Here are some representative monthly reports: June 2010, July 2010, August 2010, September 2010, June 2011, July 2011.
Orca Whale-Watching: Fact vs. Fiction
Sadly, there are a several companies that advertise “kayaking with the orcas” in the San Juan Islands that use routes where whales are randomly or rarely encountered. Their kayak tours never actually paddle in the primary orca whale-watching area so they see orcas only a couple of times over an entire summer. They certainly won’t be seeing them with the frequency we do along the western edge of the San Juan Islands in the prime killer whale hunting and feeding area.
A few other kayaking companies offer kayak tours that briefly visit the primary orca whale watching zone but paddle the majority of the trip outside of it. Spending too little time in the proper habitat is a formula for failure. Sea Quest spends the largest portion of time kayaking in the orca whale-watching zone compared to any outfitter in Washington. As biologists, we know that to be successful at kayaking with orcas requires knowing the right places and spending the most time possible in them. This is the key for consistently successful killer whale watching.
Worse yet, some kayaking companies outright lie about the facts of orca whale watching. Some make wild claims without keeping trip logs to back them up. Others try to downplay our success by saying we are “lucky”. These folks are simply trying to take to your hard-earned vacation money under false pretenses. These companies mostly operate tours in the eastern half of the San Juan Islands or the Anacortes area — far from the primary whale-watching zones. Decades of studies by biologists show that killer whales are sighted near Anacortes an average of less than 10 times a month — and usually far rom shore. In contrast, orcas have been sighted at Lime Kiln Whale Watch Park on San Juan Island an average of 1,589 times each summer — and mostly right next close to shore! Nevertheless, dishonest companies will tell you that they see orcas just as frequently as Sea Quest! Click the map on the right to see an enlarged view of US government data for killer whale sightings in July. Note that the black circle is located next to our primary launch beach and is the top orca whale location in the United States with 400 sightings on average each July. Click here to download all 12 months of killer whale watching data and be sure to zoom in to see the details.
If you are comparing sea kayaking companies in Washington, ask to see their paddling routes and compare them to our maps of where killer whales are usually seen. Ask them if they can back up their orca whale-watching claims with actual data for your review. Our San Juan Islands kayak tour route maps illustrate how closely we follow the main orca whale watching corridor. If the other company doesn’t stick to the primary killer whale route, your chances of watching killer whales with them is almost zero!
More About Kayak Whale-Watching in the San Juan Islands
Along with the acrobatic orcas, we watch whales of several other species on our San Juan Islands kayak tours. The minke whale, gray whale, humpback whale, Dall’s porpoise, and harbor porpoise are the five most frequently seen after the killer whale.
Orca whales are seen by nearly two-thirds of our multi-day kayaking trip guests. For month-by-month whale-watching success rates we’ve experienced over the past decade, read the individual trip description pages by clicking on the left sidebar menu. You can significantly elevate your chances by joining a kayak trip during the peak months indicated. Selecting the longest kayak tour you have time for also increases whale-watching success. Orca whale-watching is most reliable from mid- April through mid-October with killer whale activity peaking June through September. Minke whales, more difficult to locate than orca whales due to their solitary habits, occur during the same period but most sightings are from mid-July to mid-October. Our two smallest whales, the Dall’s and harbor porpoises, are seen on nearly three-fourths of our kayak tours May through October with a slight peak in August and September. Gray whales, humpback whales, and white-sided dolphins are less frequently seen.
Is Kayaking with Killer Whales Safe?
Many people ask us if it is safe to kayak with orcas. The answer is an emphatic YES! These intelligent whales have never injured a human in the wild. Only captive orca whales have harmed people due to the unnatural conditions they are forced to endure. Orca whales are extremely aware of their surroundings and NEVER collide with kayaks. They approach kayaks with the same respect that we offer them.
The resident killer whales of the San Juan Islands are the most studied whales in the world; they in turn have observed humans for at least six thousand years. Stable family groups, called pods, represent several generations and include grandmothers (the pod leaders), adolescents, infants, and huge bulls. Each family member is recognized by its distinctive markings and can live as long as a human. Much of what is known about the orca whale’s highly-organized social life has been learned from the resident pods you can watch from kayaks in the San Juan Islands of Washington.
Sea Quest carefully adheres to all laws that regulate whale-watching boats. Despite the fact that our silent non-polluting kayaks have no adverse impacts on killer whales, kayakers have been swept up in the same laws that apply to motorized boats. Hypocritically, the responsible agency allows military vessels to enter the marine sanctuary to use high-energy sonar that permanently deafens marine mammals. They are also allowed to explode bombs and torpedoes that have accidentally killed our endangered orcas. The agency also exempts fishing vessels and freighters from the regulations despite the fact that commercial ships create intensely damaging decibel levels underwater and place entangling nets in the whales path.
Like other whale-watching boats, we are required to position our kayaks 200 yards away from orca whales. Fortunately, killer whales frequently ignore governmental rules and we often observe them close to or below our kayaks. We have even seen them copulating beneath our kayaks in water only 10 feet deep!
San Juan Islands Kayak Whale Watching – Seattle, Washington
Sea Quest kayak trip being examined by a spyhopping killer whale – photo by Washington whale watching captain Jim Maya.