23.06.2022

SAN JUAN ISLANDS

The amazing San Juan Islands archipelago abounds with rich flora and fauna. These islands, located in the northwestern part of the USA, near the border with Canada, attract crowds of tourists. They owe it to the animals that can be seen here in their natural habitat. The most popular are, of course, the sea expeditions offering observation of orcas, as well as sea lions or humpback whales.

San Juan Islands, whale watching
Author Ryan Stone

 

GEOLOGY

Over 12,000 years ago, the Vashon Glacier covered the entire area a layer of ice about thick 4,200 feet (1,280 meters).  The glacier’s movements chipped away land masses and carved deep canyons, which are now filled in seawater. The glacier moved southward, leaving behind erratic boulders from British Columbia. It gouged the rock surfaces and formed four broad bands known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Rosario Strait, Strait of Georgia and Haro Strait, creating water channels that surround the San Juan Islands. Four distinct mountain ranges can be seen from the shores of the islands, formed by faulting, corrugating and volcanic activity.  These mountain rages surround the inland waters. To the west rise the Olympic Mountains and the Vancouver Island Range, and to the east rise the mountains in British Columbia. These mountain ranges accumulate snow in winter and provide fresh water to streams which flow into the inner Salish Sea.

San Juan Islands National Monument
San Juan Islands National Monument, authors Jeff Clark and Stepher Baker

 

SAN JUAN ARCHIPELAGO

San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands Archipelago is a group of 175 islands, located in Washington State, located in the middle of the Salish Sea, north of Seattle. If counted all the exposed islets while low tide, the number would rise to 700. 84 of these islands are designated as National Wildlife Refuges.

San Juan Islands, source macarta.com

San Juan Island

On San Juan Island is the town Friday Harbor, apart, a 1-hour ferry ride from Anacortes. It is the second-largest island with an area of 56 square miles (145 km2) and is home to about 7,500 residents. On the west side of the island is Limestone State Park, also known as Whale Watch Park. There is red algae (frog spit) growing along the shoreline, which provides an excellent habitat for fish, which swim from the open ocean to the surrounding rivers. A place to relax with beautiful panoramas can be found at Jackson’s Beach, South Beach, Jakle’s Lagoon, Cattle Point and 4th of July Beach. Limekiln State Park and San Juan State Park are known off their opportunities to see orcas and whales. 

San Juan Island, source mapcarta.com

Lopez Island

Lopez Island, measuring 29 square miles (72 km2), apart, is a 45-minute ferry ride from Anacortes.  It is inhabited by approximately 2,500 residents. Both Spencer Spit State Park and Odlin State Park offer opportunities for camping and relaxing in the bosom of nature. There are many places, where you can marvel at scenic views of Haro Strait, the Olympic Mountains, Vancouver Island, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Rainier Mountains. There we can observe seabirds, seals, sea lions and whales.

Lopez Island, source mapcarta.com

Shaw Island

The smallest of the islands served by ferries, it has an area of 8 square miles (just under 21 km2) and is home to 235 people. It is definitely the most peaceful of the four main islands.  The only accommodations are at South Beach Park on Indian Cove.  There are 11 campgrounds located.

Shawn Island, source mapcarta.com

Orcas Island

Orcas Island, about area 57 square miles (just under 148 km2), is the largest of all the islands. It is inhabited by about 5,500 people. Eastsound, a large fjord carved by a glacier, crosses an island, whereby it resembles a horseshoe in shape.  From the viewpoint at the height 2,409 meters above sea level atop Constitution Mountain (the highest point in the San Juans), there is a magnificent view for the whole archipelago. There are two state parks on the island: Moran State Park (where you can camp at Northend Camp) and Pass State Park.

Orcas Island, source mapcarta.com

HOW TO GET TO SAN JUAN ISLAND

Ferries sail out regularly from the city of Anacortes to San Juan Island. If you are traveling, for example from Seattle, to get to Friday Harbor, Anacortes is the starting point for ferry travel to either island. Below are directions to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal. The Anacortes Ferry Terminal is located at 2100 Ferry Terminal Road, Anacortes, WA 98221.

You can find current price list here on the official website.

Ferry departure times can be found here on the official website

Directions from Seattle

Take Highway 5, north to the Burlington exit. Turn west (left) on Highway 20 until you reach Anacortes. In downtown Anacortes, follow the signs (San Juan Island Ferries) to the ferry landing.

Below is a map of directions from Seattle to the ferry terminal in Anacortes.

Road from Seattle to Anacortes, source Google Maps

Directions from Bellingham

Take Highway 5, south to the Burlington exit. Turn west (left) on Highway 20 until you reach Anacortes. In downtown Anacortes, follow the signs (San Juan Island Ferries) to the ferry landing.

Below is a map of directions from Bellingham to the ferry terminal in Anacortes.

Road from Bellingham to Anacortes, source Google Maps

You can also get to the island by plane.

You can fly from Anacortes and Bellingham (about $95 one way) to San Juan Island. San Juan airline (link here).

 

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME FOR WHALE WATCHING?

Peak season is during the summer months, from mid-June to mid-September. Orcas, humpback whales, sea lions and minke whales can be seen in this time. Whales are here virtually all year round, but outside the summer months their occurrence in these waters is sporadic. During winter (December, January), usually does not organize tours due to unpredictable weather, strong winds and low temperatures.

 

WHICH COMPANY ORGANIZING CRUISES TO CHOOSE?

The most sensible option is to choose a company that is a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association- a community of ecotourism professionals who combine an involvement for education, conservation and responsible wildlife viewing. PWWA members put the right of the whales first, which watch and model the proper course of the ship/boat so that the animals are not stressed. This is important because private boating trips in these waters cause severe stress to the whales. PWWA helps reduce violations by warning private mariners with warning flags about the appearance of whales. They also work closely with ferries, tankers, cruise ships, military ships, and other vessels. They inform them in order that slow down when whales are nearby and thus minimize underwater noise, and keep a proper distance.

In summer, it is necessary to book a tour minimum one week prior.  In this time is so many applicants for sea cruises during this period, that booking overnight is virtually impossible.

A list of members/companies belonging to Pacific Whale Watch Association can be found here on the official website.

 

San Juan Islands, whale watching
Author Miles Loewen

 

WHAT DO I NEED TO TAKE ON A CRUISE?

– Warm clothes (long pants, sweatshirt) – afloat is much colder than on land (the difference can reach  to 20 degrees Celsius at strong winds)

– Hat or cap

– Flat shoes, preferably with a rubber sole, e.g. tennis shoes

– Raincoat or windbreaker

– Gloves – especially in spring and autumn

– Sunglasses

– Sunscreen

– Binoculars

– Camera

– Water bottle, cannot be glass!!!

– Food/snacks

– Backpack

 

TIPS

Arrive early

All guests must be checked in and come in to board 15 minutes before the scheduled make sail. It’s a good idea to arrive 30 minutes before your sea journey, to find parking (and pay for a parking space, if it is paid) and pack up your things before the tour.

Photography tips

If you choose the boat cruise option, it’s a good idea to go to the upper viewing decks. This gives the photographer a wider field of view and easier to spot the animals. If you need extra support, it’s a good idea to take a monopod instead of a tripod, due to the small amount of space on the upper decks and to not disturb other photographers.

 

HOW ABOUT A KAYAK?

The San Juan Outfitters Whale Sanctuary Tour is a two- or three-day tour for guests, who are already experienced in sea kayaking or are in good physical condition. This tour passes through what is known as the Southern Resident Killer on the west side of San Juan Island, and the goal is chance observe wildlife, including a population of orcas. Since the route is mostly through their territory, this form of trip offers one of the best chances to see orcas up close. You can read more about the expedition on the official website (link here).

 

Salish Sea, whale watching
If we will have a luck, we can see something this 🙂 author Thomas Lipke, Salish Sea

 

WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO OBSERVE ORCAS FROM THE SHORE?

To observe marine animals, you don’t have to take a boat trip deep into the sea every time. There are several places on San Juan Island from which you can view orcas, porpoises, sea lions, or seals. It’s always a good idea to have binoculars with you.

Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point State Park is officially named “Whale Watch Park.” This title is no coincidence. This park is truly one of the best places to watch migrating orcas or whales. The coastline of the park consists of cliffs, whereby the depth of water at the shore get to several dozen meters. This allows orcas and other whales to swim very close to the shoreline. Some scientists speculate that orcas use the steep seabed to catch schools of salmon. Other attractions to see in the park, it is a historic lighthouse from 1919 and the remains of the original lime kiln, which was started in 1860 when the resource was mined in the surrounding area.

San Juan Island National Historical Park

Near Cattle Point Lighthouse in San Juan Island National Historical Park, you may see sea lions. They are usually sprawl on the gravel shoreline. If you’re lucky, you may also spot flocks of orcas.

San Juan Island National Historical Park
San Juan Island National Historical Park, author Tiny Froglet

 

Westside Preserve

Westside Preserve is one of the favorite areas among local orca watchers. So it can be said that Westside Preserve is the perfect place for a more private experience. Although the preserve seems secluded, it can be accessed via West Side Rd. At the parking lot is a place for over a dozen cars.

San Juan County Park

This 12-acre park on the west side of San Juan Island is a great spot for launching kayaks. From here, you can sail up to the orca territory. It is possible to kayak in Smallpox Bay or go out into the open sea if you have the proper permits.

 

WHAT GUIDELINES YOU SHOULD RESPECT

  • If you encounter a marine mammal (e.g. a seal) on any beach, make sure, that you are at least 100 yards (about 91 meters) from the animal.
  • Private kayakers should become acquainted to the Kayaker Code of Conduct. If you are on a guided kayak tour, pay attention to the guide’s instructions concern of safe wildlife viewing.

 

SMART SAILING

In 2011, regulations implemented in America requiring sailors to maintain a distance of 200 yards (about 182 meters) from animals and to keep a clear path for swimming marine mammals. These regulations apply to all ships (with some exceptions) on Washington State’s inland waters. A program called the Soundwatch Boater Education Program, conducted by The Whale Museum, educates sailors on appropriate ways to observe orcas/whales in their environment.

Boats should not be driven if the whale is within 100 yards (about 91 meters). If the animal is between 100 and 200 yards (91-182 meters) away, the operator should start the engine and slowly move back 200 yards (182 meters) or more away from the animal.

 

San Juan Islands, whale watching
Humpback whales, author Ryan Stone

 

USEFUL INFORMATION

To park in state parks, you must buy a Discover Pass. A link to the official site can be found here. Discover Pass is required, among others, at Lime Kiln Point State Park and Cattle Point Interpretive Area.

Here you can find accommodation in San Juan Islands.

 

THE PROBLEM WITH … SALMON

San Juan area orcas became listed as an endangered species in 2005. In the mid-1990s, were about 100 individuals around the San Juan Islands. By July 2021, their numbers had dropped to 74. One of the main reasons why it’s happening, is the salmon population declining every year, which the orcas feed on and other animals such as sea otters. Nowadays, the offspring of orcas are not so numerous and often die prematurely. On the other hand, females are unable to produce enough food to feed them. Then, males are not maturing enough to reproduce.

A major reason for the decline in salmon populations is the 4 dams built between 1957 and 1975 by the Army Corps of Engineers on the Snake River in southern Washington State. They were built to stimulate the economy of Idaho City by transporting goods by river. Below is a trailer for a documentary film titled “Dammed to Extinction” that talks about the Snake River dams and the problems associated for the San Juan Islands ecosystem. The film has won numerous awards. The entire film can be viewed on Amazon (link here).

 

TIDBIT

More than 500,000 tourists watch whales in Washington and British Columbia waters around the San Juan Islands each year.

 

SUMMARY

The San Juan Archipelago is undoubtedly one of the few places in the world where tourists can observe orcas or other marine mammals up close in their natural environment. Cruise companies usually offer full-day trips, as well as three- or five-hour trips. We can also use private cruises, which will give us more comfort and “intimacy” while observing the nature of San Juan. For people who have a good condition, will be an interesting option, a two- or three-day guided kayak trip with the opportunity to swim alongside a herd of orcas. Whichever option you choose, it is certain, that it will be unforgettable experiences.  

 

San Juan Islands National Monument, Jeff Clark

Ryan Stone

Bernhard Wintersperger

San Juan Island, Washington, USA, Benjamin Massello

Harry Wegley

Ryan Stone (photo edited)

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