To be near an animal that can grow to 30 or 40 tons brings a rare perspective on life and is truly unforgettable. Few places in the US are more conducive to whale watching than the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula and the Salish Sea. This area offers unbeatable land-viewing and boating opportunities to get close to these marine giants.
Best places for whale watching
Although whales can be spotted nearly anywhere along the Olympic coast, there are several areas that are perfect for catching a glimpse of these giant marine mammals. May is designated whale watching month at Kalaloch Lodge, which is part of the Whale Trail, a collection of over 100 viewing locations that extends from British Columbia southbound to California. For the best land viewing opportunities, explore the shores of Second Beach, Rialto, Shi Shi, or Neah Bay, but be sure to plan before you go, as some places are currently closed to visitors. Other locations that offer a great viewing platform for whales either in the Salish Sea or the Pacific Ocean are the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, Tongue Point Marine Life Sanctuary (also known as Salt Creek Recreation Area), Ruby Beach, or Haynisisoos Park. So bring a chair and binoculars and find your spot anywhere along the Olympic Peninsula's 73 mi (117.5 km) of public coastline.
There are almost countless options for whale watching tours ranging from large outfitters to smaller boats for a quieter experience. We have picked a few of the best options to get you started.
If you are departing from Seattle/Edmonds or Port Townsend, the Puget Sound Express is one of your best options for a tour by boat. Their tours vary in length depending on which tour you take. Their fleet of four boats will accommodate your needs and allow you to fully enjoy your experience on the water. Several of their vessels are even equipped with a hydrophone, allowing passengers to hear the whales talking underwater. Expect to spend anywhere from 2-5 hours aboard. These tours will cost you between $85-$135 per adult or $65-$95 for children (2-10). Anyone younger than 2 gets a free ride! A major draw to taking a tour with the Puget Sound Express is their guarantee to see a whale or they will give you a voucher for a free ride. For those without their sea legs, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center offers educational events and exhibits for land lovers.
Another boat tour outfitter that offers guaranteed whale sightings is Island Adventures Whale Watching Company. Tours depart from Anacortes between March and October and Everett between February and May. Each boat offers indoor heated cabins, viewing decks, onboard naturalists, concessions, and restrooms to make your experience a memorable one. Depending on the tour you select, plan on being on the water for 3-5 hours. Although discounts may be available, be sure to budget $109 for adults and $69 for children ages 3 to 17.
Whale-watching tours in the Salish Sea typically follow the migration patterns of several whale species as they switch from their rich northern waters used for feeding to their warmer, shallower, and safer calving grounds such as the Sea of Cortez in Mexico's Baja peninsula. Find these massive creatures on their biannual journey past the Pacific Northwest either between April and May or October and November. You might also see some of the incredible flora and fauna of the area such as eagles or other sea mammals like seals, otters, or porpoises.
Bigg's killer whales (all-year)
One of the whale species you are likely to spot is the Bigg's killer whale (Orcinus orca, also known as an orca whale. They use these waters to hunt and feed together. These whales travel in family groups of 4 to 7 and it is estimated that there are over 400 individuals that feed year-round in the Salish Sea. Unlike some of the other whale species you might glimpse here, these whales do not migrate seasonally.
Gray whale (spring, fall)
Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are known to have the longest migration route of any mammal. They tirelessly cover 10,000 to 14,000 mi (16,093 to 22,531 km) every year, traveling from Alaska to Mexico and back again. These noble underwater beasts make a stop to feed and refuel in the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula.
Humpback whale (spring, fall)
One of the most recognized whale species that is found all around the world is the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Known as one of the largest mammals on earth, this animal was nearly hunted to extinction. Through legal protection and conservation efforts throughout the globe, this species has come back from the brink to be viewed and appreciated from a distance. How lucky are we to have been able to preserve this majestic creature.
Of all the whales that frequent this area, the Minke (pronounced mink-ee) whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) is the toughest to view. Because of their feeding habits and shy nature, these cetaceans aren't frequently seen nor is much known about their migration habits. Try your luck on a cruise to witness a whale that few humans get a chance to spot.
Spending time on a beach or in a boat can expose you to unpredictable weather. In the rainy and sometimes foggy Pacific Northwest, prepare for a windy and wet time.
What to wear
Be sure to dress for the occasion with several layers to keep warm and insulate yourself against the possibility of wind and rain. Although most tours offer sheltered viewing locations, having a rain jacket is not a bad idea. On sunny days, be sure to use sunscreen, as water can reflect the sun's rays, increasing the chances of a sunburn.
What to bring
Come prepared with snacks and drinks to keep you energized for several hours cruising on a boat. To get a better view of the wildlife you may encounter, binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens are a great idea.
Where to stay
The Olympic peninsula is a popular tourist destination and, as such, hosts a great selection of hotels, campgrounds, bed and breakfasts, and Airbnb's. For a cozy stay out on the coast of the Pacific, check out Kalaloch Lodge. For something a bit more rustic, check out one of the many campgrounds located within the park.
When can you see whales in Washington state?
May is the best time to see whales on their migration, but the National Park Service also recommends April, October, and November as prime times for viewing.
What time of day are orcas most active?
The best time of day is when sunlight is overhead between 11 am and 3 pm.
Is morning or afternoon better for whale watching?
Morning is the best time of day to spot whales when the water is most calm.