San Juan Island is in the middle of the Southern Resident Orcas critical habitat and their summer feeding grounds.
The Whale Museum estimates that more than 500,000 people annually go whale watching on commercial whale-watch boats in the transboundary waters of Washington and British Columbia. Another 3,000-8,000 watch whales each year from private boats. Whale watching in the San Juan Islands has become a multi-million dollar industry. It provides people with an opportunity to gain knowledge and appreciate killer whales as well as the abundance of other marine wildlife in this region. The Whale Museum's mission is to foster stewardship. As more people become aware of the importance of the marine ecosystems on this planet, increasing numbers of them will work to help preserve it.
However, it is extremely important that the large numbers of humans who watch whales and other marine wildlife don't disrupt the animals' environment or their ability to live normal, healthy lives.
There are a variety of ways to get out and explore this beautifully, diverse area including: boat based tours, kayaking excursions, land-based whale watching. If you choose to go on a commercial boat, The Whale Museum recommends interested watchers "Look Before They Book." Look for members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association who follow and promote the Washington State Vessel Law, U.S. Federal Regulations and the Be Whale Wise Guidelines as well as employ professional marine naturalists. If you would like to go kayaking, get a copy of the Kayakers Code of Conduct and check out the members of the San Juan Island Kayak Association. Land-based whale watching is another terrific way to experience this marine environment. There are many places along the westside of San Juan Island that provide adequate parking and trails so that you can enjoy watching whales and other marine life from shore. Notable spots include:
Download the new "Watching Whales in the San Juan Islands" brochure.
There is no central source for the public to find out exactly when the whales are present in the San Juans. Generally speaking members of the Southern Resident Community are regularly seen in the area from May through September.
You can view a series of charts that show since 1978 when the orcas were seen in the San Juan and Canadian Gulf islands, and when they were seen in Puget Sound (south of the San Juan Islands). Another chart shows the breakdown, since 1976, of the monthly arrivals and departures of each pod. The data was collected and compiled by Whale Museum staff.
Don't forget: The least intrusive way to see the orcas is from shore. When the whales swim by Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of San Juan Island (also known as Whale Watch Park) you can get a fantastic view of them.
Just remember, the whales aren't on a schedule. You never know when they might pass by!
The Whale Museum created the Soundwatch Boater Education Program in 1993 to educate pleasure boaters on the least intrusive ways to watch whales in the wild. On the water throughout the summer, Soundwatch crews and volunteers monitor boater activity near whales.
Soundwatch approaches private boaters in the vicinity of killer whales to courteously explain the most current laws and Be Whale Wise guidelines while also providing boaters with brochures that they can keep onboard their vessel. The Be Whale Wise Guidelines were created in conjunction with the U.S. and Canadian federal governments and the international Pacific Whale Watch Association to assist boaters in viewing marine wildlife with minimal impact to the animals. (In June 2008, vessel regulations were passed in the State of Washington. In May 2011, U.S. federal regulations were enacted.)
In addition to providing shore-based and on-the-water education to boaters, Soundwatch also monitors all vessels watching whales for compliance with guidelines and laws pertaining to killer whales, other marine mammals and regional marine protected areas. Soundwatch is primarily an educational program and has no enforcement power. However, repeat or flagrant violations of the guidelines may be reported by anyone to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service or to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which may impose substantial fines.
Marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Human activities in the vicinity of marine mammals can result in a variety of impacts ranging from no observable change in behavior to actual physical harm.
Examples of behavior by disturbed or harassed animals can include (but are not limited to):