While on your cruise, you can expect to see much more wildlife besides orca whales. Humpback, gray, and Minke whales, as well as sea lions and seals also inhabit this area. Gray whales can be spotted near Whidbey Island. There is also the scenic Deception Pass, which is worth exploring. Bald eagles, porpoises, and other interesting seabirds inhabit the islands and are easily spotted near the shore. Around the Seattle/Tacoma area, there is no shortage of tour operators that offer wonderful day trips suited for a solo adventurer or even the whole family. Find the trip that's right for you and set sail!
Best places for whale watching
There are over 50 whale viewing sites in Washington! The San Juan Islands, located 87 mi (140 km) north of Seattle in the heart of the Salish Sea, is the most famous place for orca whale watching. Orca whales usually pass through the islands in greatest numbers between mid-May and mid-October when the salmon runs are strongest, although it's possible to spot them throughout the year. In February, March, April, late October, and November you can see fewer orca whales than in the summer, but the chances of seeing one of the other whale species increases as spring and fall are known to be the time of year that gray and humpback whales pass through on their biannual migration. Keep in mind that every year is different depending on the ecosystem.
If you are close to Edmonds, the Puget Sound Express is a great option to take a tour by boat. A typical tour can vary in length depending on the time of year and tour package you select. Expect to spend 2-5 hours afloat. Tickets will cost you between $85-$135 per adult or $65-$95 for children (2-10). Anyone younger than 2 gets a free ride! A nice feature of booking with this company is their whale sighting guarantee. If your tour doesn't encounter a whale, Puget Sound Express will supply you with a voucher to try again at no cost.
Another option for a guaranteed whale cruise is Island Adventures Whale Watching Company. Tours depart from Everett between February and May and 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.
Also, Island Adventure whale watching tours depart from the city of Anacortes, located on Fidalgo Island, east of the San Juan Archipelago. Orca tours are offered between mid-February and November, while humpback whales, grey whales, and Minke whales may be spotted throughout the year.
Most of the whale species found in the Salish Sea are migratory. They move from their feeding grounds in the rich, deep waters of the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia to their calving grounds further south. In the case of the gray whale, they swim down to the warm, shallow, and safe waters of the Sea of Cortez. Humpback whales are known to calve in a few select lagoons around Hawaii. Summer is the best time to view orca whales and spring/fall is the best time for gray whale viewing.
Bigg's killer whales (year-round)
The Bigg's killer whale (Orcinus orca) is also known simply as an orca whale. They use the rich waters of the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for feeding. These whales travel in family groups or pods of 4 to 7 and it is estimated that there are over 400 individuals that remain 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 on earth! They bravely cover well over 10,000 mi (16,093 km) every year, traveling from Alaska to Mexico and back again. Such an incredible feat requires lots of food and energy. These noble underwater creatures 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 well-known and widespread whales is the humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae). Known as one of the largest mammals on earth, this animal was nearly hunted to extinction. Through legal protections and conservation efforts, this species has come back from near-extinction to continue to be viewed and appreciated from a distance. Long may this amazing creature swim in our oceans.
Due to the elusive nature of this cetacean, the Minke (pronounced mink-ee) whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) is the toughest to view. Because of their feeding habits and shy nature, these animals 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 encounter.
While out on the water, expect more wind than on land. If you go out on a sunny day, know that water can reflect UV light, increasing the potential for sunburn. Is this your first time on a boat? If so, then be prepared for the possibility of motion sickness. There are several over-the-counter medications available for this, so consider having some on hand.
What to wear
Dress in layers if possible. You can always take off clothing if you get too hot. Additionally, consider wearing long pants, a hat, closed-toed shoes, and sunscreen to reduce your exposure to UV rays. Many of the tours available to you will have sheltered locations on the boat, but being prepared for anything will help you have a great time on the water.
What to bring
Concessions such as food and water are usually available to you if you get hungry or thirsty, but having some snacks and a beverage with you is never a bad idea. Finally, to get a better view of the wildlife you may encounter out there, bring binoculars. Having these on hand could mean the difference between seeing a porpoise breech in the distance or just watching a dark speck move on the horizon. A camera with a zoom lens is another great option.
Where to stay
There are countless options for accommodations in the Seattle area. Check out our map below to find a place that suits you. For budget travelers, consider the Green Tortoise Backpacker's Hostel. Located conveniently in Downtown Seattle, right next to Pike Place Market, this hostel is worth checking out all by itself. They even offer shuttles to and from the airport. Meet travelers from all over the world and perhaps make life-long friendships.
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 should I wear for whale watching?
Long pants are essential. Avoid shorts or skirts and wear layers to block the wind.
Where can I see orcas in Washington?
The San Juan Islands are one of the best places to view orca whales between March and October.