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.
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:
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!
U.S. regulations went into effect in 2011 requiring that boaters stay 200 yards away from killer whales and keep path of the whales clear. These laws apply to all vessels (with some exceptions) in inland waters of Washington. The Whale Museum’s Soundwatch Boater Education Program educates pleasure boaters on the least intrusive ways to watch whales in the wild.
If surprised by a whale within 200 yards of your boat remember: boats should not be under power if a whale is within 100 yards of the vessel. If the animal is between 100 and 200 yards away, the operator should start the motor and move slowly out of the animal’s path, to a distance of 200 yards or more.
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 above regulations. Keep out of the path of whales when boating or kayaking. Watch for behavior indicating animals are being disturbed or harassed, including:
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.