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Critical Habitat

The Southern Resident killer whales were listed as an endangered species in 2005. All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. San Juan Island is in the middle of the Southern Resident orcas’ federally designated critical habitat and summer feeding and socializing grounds. 

More than 500,000 people annually go whale watching in the waters of Washington and British Columbia around the San Juan Islands. Whale watching is a unique opportunity to gain knowledge and appreciate killer whales and the other marine wildlife in this region.

Reduce Your Impact

It is important to foster stewardship of the marine ecosystem and to not disrupt the animals' environment or their ability to live normal, healthy lives.

  • Land-based whale watching: The least intrusive way to see orcas is from shore. There are six public beaches on San Juan Island where whales can often be seen. It’s the law: If you encounter a marine mammal (such as a seal) at any beach, make sure you stay at least 100 yards away. There are many more designated land-based sites throughout the Salish Sea, thanks to The Whale Trail.
  • Kayaking: Private kayakers, get a copy of the Kayakers Code of Conduct. For guided kayak tours, check out members of the San Juan Island Kayak Association and pay careful attention to your guide’s tips on safe wildlife viewing. 
  • Whale Watching Boat Tours: "Look Before You Book" for members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association who employ professional marine naturalists and who follow and promote the Washington State Vessel Law, U.S. Federal Regulations and the Be Whale Wise Guidelines.

See the Orcas

Several parks on San Juan Island provide ample parking and trails so that you can enjoy watching whales and other marine life from shore. (Purchase a Discover Pass to park at State Parks.) Notable spots include:

  • Lime Kiln Point State Park (Whale Watch Park): Discover Pass required.
  • The Westside Scenic Preserve
  • San Juan County Park
  • American Camp
  • South Beach
  • Cattle Point Lighthouse/Interpretive Area: Discover Pass required.

Download the Watching Whales in the San Juan Islands brochure.

When can you see the Orcas? 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. It is possible to see transient orcas and/or other marine mammals at any time of year. Just remember, the whales aren't on a schedule. You never know when they might pass by!

Smart Boating

Before heading out on your boat, learn about the different types of marine mammals in the area, how to identify orcas, and how to tell distance on the water. The Whale Museum’s Soundwatch Boater Education Program educates pleasure boaters on the least intrusive ways to watch whales in the wild.

Know the current rules and regulations by checking the Be Whale Wise website

Avoid Whale Harassment

Human activities in the vicinity of marine mammals can result in a variety of impacts. Boat noise and crowds of vessels stress marine mammals. There are even cases each year of propeller strikes killing marine mammals. Smart boating, including observing legal setbacks, allows animals to safely continue foraging, socializing and other normal behaviors without stress. 

When viewing wild marine mammals, keep your distance according to the current regulations. Keep out of the path of whales when boating or kayaking. Watch for behavior indicating animals are being disturbed or harassed, including:

  • A rapid change in direction or speed.
  • Escape tactics such as prolonged diving, underwater course changes, or underwater exhalation; or seal or sea lion stampedes from haul outs into the water.
  • Evasive swimming patterns such as rapid swimming at the surface.
  • Attempts by a female whale to shield a calf from a vessel or a human observer by tail swishing or other protective movements.

If you see symptoms of harassment, follow the guidelines above to slowly increase the distance between yourself and the animal. 

If you see an injured or stranded marine mammal (alive or dead) please Report a Stranding to the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

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