When is whale watching season?

Those of us who live here in the San Juans know that the opportunity to see whales exists pretty much all year round, but there are definite seasons when the whales are more likely to be about.

Of all the activities to enjoy here in the San Juan Islands, whale watching is one of the most spectacular. There are many whale watching tours available for those that don’t have a boat, and for those of us that do, knowing where and when to find the whales is a real plus. There are a great variety of whales travelling the waters here in the San Juan Islands, both toothed and baleen. Some species have much information known about them, and of some very little is known.  All can be seen here under the right circumstances and at the right times.

Killer Whales

Orca Whale

We have two different types of Orca whales here in the San Juan Islands, resident and transient. Our resident population, referred to as the Southern Resident Killer Whales are comprised of three pods, J, K, & L. Feeding almost exclusively on salmon, (the favorite being chinook) these whales can be seen from April to October in the area along Lime Kiln on the West side of San Juan Island due to the salmon run there. During the winter months it is not certain where K & L pods migrate too, but it is thought that they follow the salmon to the open ocean. J pod can be seen around Seattle and Whidbey Island.

Transient Orcas travel in smaller groups with less tight knit family bonds than the resident populations. Feeding exclusively on marine mammals, these whales can be seen in most of the same areas as the resident whales, although with less frequency, possibly due to the smaller numbers that travel together.

Gray Whales

Gray Whale

Gray whales have a migration route that is believed to be the longest annual migration of any mammal, traveling approximately 9,900–14,000 miles round-trip. Swimming night and day, the gray whale averages about 75 miles per day at an average speed of 5 mph. Beginning in the early spring, March to May, and again in October and November, gray whales can be seen on the South end of Whidbey Island. Gray Whales migrate from the warm waters of the Baja Peninsula where they calve and find mates, North to the Bering and Chukchi seas where these baleen whales spend the winter months feeding on crustaceans and building fat for the return migration South in October.

Minke Whales

Minke Whale

Minke whales are also baleen whales. It is reported that there are about 17 Minke whales that can be spotted regularly throughout the year in the waters around San Juan Island. These are the second smallest baleen whale and feed on small schooling fish and invertebrates. With a population of about 600-1000 whales along the west coast from Washington to California, combined with their small size, long dives, and elusive nature, this species of whale is difficult to study. For this reason, relatively little is known about the minke whales living in the Northeast Pacific.

Humpback Whales

Humpback whale

Another species of baleen whale is the North Pacific Humpback Whale. Known mostly for their song, which only the male sings. The best time to see these giants here is in October and November. Reaching a length of 50 feet and weighing in at 30 tons, these wondrous whales are making a real comeback after being hunted to the brink of extinction. Annual migrations of 16,000 miles are typical with the whales. They spend the summer months in polar waters feeding on small schooling fish and krill, while the winter months are spent living off of fat stores while calving and mating in tropical waters.

Ken and I have been very lucky on our boat and seen many orca whales while sailing  the San Juan Islands.   We’d love you to share your whale sighting stories too!

Related posts:

San Juan Islands, 7 S. Dungeness Crab - Week 2
Fiberglass Over Teak - Part Deux
Sailing the Gulf Islands, Part 7
2 Responses to “When is whale watching season?”
  1. Chris says:

    Great article Sherrie!

    Annie and I saw a grey whale just outside Cap Sante marina two summers ago. Apparently they were coming in very close to shore that summer to feed on shrimp in the eel grass beds. It goes to show you don’t need to be way out to see whales, you just need to be on the water frequently.


    Chris Troutner

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