There are few things more “northwesty” than going orca whale watching in Washington. We love our orcas, where they regularly make the local news. If you’re visiting the Seattle area, it’s well worth a spot on your itinerary to see these beautiful mammals.
Washington offers several options for sighting these majestic creatures, and you don’t even have to leave land. As an added bonus, the places where you will find these marine mammals are often some of the most scenic places to visit in the Pacific Northwest, which will make your trip that much more worth it. When booking your trip, keep in mind that mid-June to early September is the best time to witness these beautiful marine mammals.
Washington State contains many great locations to spot orcas as it is home to many different species of marine life, stretching from the Pacific Coast to the Salish Sea. In addition to the nearly one hundred orca whales who reside in this area permanently, the western coast of Washington is also part of the migrating route for grey whales and transient orca whales.
As the Pacific Northwest has rich indigenous history, the orca whale is revered as a symbol of local indigenous cultures, and is often present in their artwork, sculptures, totem poles, as well as part of their myths and legends.
Kinds of Whales You Can See in Washington
Excited to experience whale sightings in Washington? Before you go, take time to learn more about the various types of majestic marine mammals that you will meet. As you embark on a whale-watching adventure, here’s what you might encounter:
Orca whales, or killer whales, are actually the largest members of the dolphin family. They inhabit every ocean, but are most well-known and studied in the Pacific Northwest.
Orcas are known for their unique black and white markings, and they have the second largest brain of all marine animals!
Three groups of orca whales are present throughout the Washington coast- resident, transient, and offshore. Resident orcas remain inland or in nearby coastal waters, and are subdivided into two groups- Northern and Southern resident whales. The southern resident orcas inhabit British Columbia, Canada, and the Washington Coast, and are known as the U.S. killer whales, or the Salish Sea Orcas. They are on the Endangered Species List, as there are only about 80 remaining.
Then there are the transient orcas, also known as Bigg’s killer whales, which pass through each year, and increase the total to about 250. They are mammal-eating orcas, feeding on harbor seals, stellar sea lions, and Dall’s porpoises. Transient orcas travel in small groups through the coastal waters, from southern Alaska and British Columbia, to as far south as California. They frequently hunt for food in the Salish Sea as they make their way down.
The third group are the offshore orcas, which inhabit the water far beyond the inland coastal waters. Less is known about these orcas, because of this, but it has been discovered in recent years that they feed on sharks.
These colossal creatures undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling from the icy waters of Alaska to the warmer regions of Baja California. An interesting tidbit is that gray whales sift through the ocean floor for tiny crustaceans, leaving behind “feeding pits” as evidence of their meal.
Renowned for their mesmerizing songs and incredible acrobatics, humpback whales can be recognized by their distinct long pectoral fins. They primarily feed on krill and small fish, and while they were once endangered, conservation efforts have seen their numbers rise in recent years.
As the second smallest baleen whale, minke whales are nimble swimmers, often seen darting about chasing schools of fish. Their curious nature sometimes brings them close to boats, an experience to look forward to when you join a whale-watching tour in Washington State.
While these whales are undoubtedly the main attraction, the waters off Washington’s coast teem with other marine life. The harbor porpoise, a small and shy cetacean distinguished by its short beak and rounded dorsal fin, is frequently spotted during whale-watching tours. And of course, we have the playful harbor seals with their spotted coats, often seen lounging on the shoreline or darting through the waves. Overhead, bald eagles soar silently.
In essence, whale-watching offers more than just glimpses of the beloved majestic giants. As you navigate the waters, you’re immersed in the abundant marine life that Washington State passionately nurtures and safeguards. It’s a testament to the state’s commitment to conservation and a reminder of the intricate web of life beneath the waves.
The Best Time of Year for Whale Watching
Various whale species have unique migration patterns, which means you can see them in the marine waters of Washington State at different times of the year. Understanding these patterns will greatly enhance your whale-watching experience, especially if you’re hoping to spot a specific type of whale.
Gray whales usually make their appearance between March and May, as they migrate from their breeding grounds in Baja California to the cooler, food-rich waters of the Arctic. This journey brings them close to Washington’s shores, offering spectators a chance to witness their impressive migration.
Humpback whales have a more varied presence. While some can be spotted throughout the summer and fall, their highest activity in Washington waters is between May and October. They migrate thousands of miles from their winter breeding grounds near Hawaii and Mexico to feed in the nutrient-rich waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Minke whales, on the other hand, are somewhat elusive but can be found in the Salish Sea primarily during the summer months.
As for mating rituals, while the warmer waters further south are typically the breeding grounds for many whale species, some mating behaviors and vocalizations can be observed in Washington’s waters, particularly during migration.
How to Go Orca Whale Watching from Seattle
Seattle itself isn’t great for whale watching, but it’s a good jumping-off point and an excellent place to stay for a few days. When you’re in the area, check out our guide to the best wine tasting in Woodinville, and don’t miss these Seattle and Eastside date night ideas.
If you do need to depart from Seattle on a whale watching tour, the Puget Sound Express is your best option, as their comfortable, heated whale-watching boats tour patrons through both the Salish Sea and San Juan Islands. Before we go further, a quick note: this post contains affiliate links. See our affiliate policy here.
In addition to orca whales, often humpback whales, gray whales, and minke whales, which are various species of baleen whales, will also be seen while touring this area. You will often be lucky enough to see many other forms of marine life, such as harbor seals, sea lions, and dolphins, and birds such as the great blue heron and tufted puffin.
If you are going to make Seattle your base, it is one of those cities where it is fun and convenient to stay downtown, where you are walking distance to many attractions, restaurants, and shopping. The Paramount Hotel is set in a perfect location close to Pike Place Market as well as the Waterfront, and it has spacious rooms for all of your family members and luggage.
From my personal experience in Seattle, I love to grab a coffee and take a stroll through Pike Place Market, and then make my way down to the harbor. If you are looking to enjoy some delicious local seafood, head to Salty’s On Alki Beach for a wonderful dining experience and gorgeous views of Seattle’s skyline.
We also took the underground tour of Seattle’s first established neighborhood. I am not usually big on group tours, but this one was really neat and one not to be missed.
Another great sight is the Chihuly Garden and Glass Exhibit, a modern must-see museum of Dale Chihuly’s blown glass sculptures. Then of course you can take a ride up the Seattle Space Needle-Seattle’s signature landmark, a 605-foot tall observation tower that offers 360 degree views of the city, ocean and mountains on a clear day.
If you are in Seattle for a few days and want to take advantage of its many tourist attractions, check out the Seattle CityPASS, which gives you a 44% discount, or greater, at five top attractions. You can find tickets and savings for all of these attractions here.
Check out what else Seattle has to offer:
Whale Watching on the Olympic Peninsula: Port Angeles and Port Townsend
When to go: summer
Whales you might see: humpbacks, orcas
If you are planning a trip in the summer months, don’t miss Port Angeles, where transient orcas are often passing through as they feed on smaller marine mammals. Port Angeles is the gateway to the Olympic National Park, a must-see wilderness park that lets you take in all the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Containing coastal, mountain and forest ecosystems, Port Angeles is a majestic seaside- meets- mountain town. You can get to Port Angeles by using a number of different ferry routes to cross the Puget Sound, the best way perhaps being the Bainbridge Island Ferry.
If you want to spend a few days in the area, The Olympic Lodge by Ayres is nestled at the base of the Olympic Mountains, and just two miles from the city center. The quintessential ONP lodging, however, is Lake Crescent Lodge, one of the few hotels you can find inside the national park.
One of the best locations on the Olympic Peninsula for whale watching, this tour out of the Port Angeles boat haven will take you whale watching and in addition to orca whales, you will often see humpback whales, sea lions, stellar sea lions, harbor seals, and bald eagles.
Another route is the Black Ball Ferry, which runs from Port Angeles to Victoria, BC. Even if this is not your main tour, take this short ferry trip anyway, especially around sunset, for stunning views. During this scenic 90-minute ride through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and with stunning views of the Olympic Peninsula, passengers also often see a variety of wildlife, including humpback whales, orca whales and a variety of other marine mammals and birds.
A tour from Port Townsend, a Victorian seaport also located in the Olympic Peninsula, is also a fantastic option for the ultimate whale watching experience. The Olympic Peninsula coast along the Pacific Ocean is a primary route for migrating whales. The Puget Sound Express (which also runs from Seattle) will also take you on an excellent half-day tour from this quaint town.
About two hours from Seattle, Port Townsend is surrounded by stunning scenery and is full of historic charm, as you will find Victorian architecture dating back to the 19th century. Its beauty will make traveling here well worth the drive; tourists will enjoy the charming tree-lined streets, eclectic shops and locally sourced restaurants. To fully immerse yourself in this historic town, stay at the Palace Hotel, a restored Victorian hotel that emanates all the charm that this town has to offer, and is centrally located downtown and one block from the ferry dock.
Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands
When to go: April to September
Whales you might see: orcas, humpbacks, gray whales
The beautiful San Juan Islands of Washington are one of the most popular destinations for whale watching, largely due to the abundance of Chinook salmon that run through on their way to the Fraser River in Canada from June to September. There is also a large underwater canyon on the west side, where the orcas are able to catch salmon. For the transient population, the area is abundant with seals, sea lions, and other orca food.
Getting to the San Juans
This group of islands is situated about an hour and a half north of Seattle in the Salish Sea, between Washington and Vancouver Island. A 90-minute drive from Seattle to the mainland ferry terminal in Anacortes is a good starting point if you want to get to the San Juan Islands. A small coastal town on Fidalgo Island, Anacortes is right across from the San Juans.
From here, you can get to Friday Harbor terminal, and there are many options for group whale watching tours leaving right from Friday Harbor that will allow you the opportunity to see all kinds of whales, including orcas, humpback whales, and gray whales. From Anacortes, you can also get to Orcas Island, Shaw Island, and Lopez Island. Other islands in this area can be reached by a chartered plane.
Alternatively, if you are looking for the fastest route to get to the San Juan Islands, you can fly with Kenmore Air, the seaplane base in Kenmore, Washington, a 20-minute drive from downtown Seattle.
If kayaking and wildlife tours are your thing, check out a three-hour kayak tour out of Anacortes, where you paddle through stunning scenery of uninhabited islands, and will often get the chance to see orcas, harbor seals, and porpoises.
There are many options for accommodation on the San Juan Islands, from quaint and budget-friendly, to upscale. If your budget is on the higher end, you may want to stay at the Outlook Inn on Orcas Island. It has large, luxurious rooms complete a fireplace to warm you up after a day of whale watching, and provides amazing ocean views for you to enjoy as you drink your morning coffee or evening glass of wine.
You can still stay on the San Juan Islands if you are under a tighter budget. A great option would be The Marina Inn, conveniently located just minutes from the Anacortes Ferry, a short walk to shops and restaurants, and the hotel provides a complimentary breakfast. It is a clean and simple accommodation, but offers all the amenities that you would get at a higher-class hotel, and boasts great customer experiences.
The Best Whale Watching Tours in Washington State
There are several excellent whale watching tours in Washington, most of them leaving from the San Juans. They have consistent ratings and a high success rate of seeing whales. One thing to note: if you are touring from the San Juans, be sure you are booking a tour that leaves from the island you are staying on…the ferries between the islands can add a significant amount of time to your day if you’re trying to move from one island to another in order to catch a tour. For that reason, some of these tour operators offer the same tour leaving from different islands for convenience.
San Juan Safaris – Friday Harbor
San Juan Safaris operates from the heart of the whale-watching capital, Friday Harbor. San Juan Safaris stands out as one of Washington State’s premier tour operators not just for the viewing experience, but also because of their knowledgeable naturalists and top-tier vessels. The tour is more like an educational journey through the marine ecosystem, and through it all, you will see the team’s dedication to responsible wildlife viewing, which ensures minimal disruption to marine life. No whale-watching tour can promise 100 percent that whales will be sighted on your date of visit. However, as per reviews, San Juan Safaris has a high success rate, making it a top choice for both avid enthusiasts and first-time watchers.
Blue Kingdom Whale and Wildlife Tours – Anacortes
What I love about Blue Kingdom’s half-day tours is that you can book a shared or private whale watching tour, which is hard to find. Even if you do choose a group tour, the maximum passenger count is 17, so you can navigate to spaces that larger ships can’t get to, and the guides on board can more easily explain what you’re seeing and answer questions.
Island Adventures Whale Watching – Anacortes, Port Angeles, La Conner
Island Adventures is another frontrunner in the whale-watching circuit. They offer tours from three prime locations: Anacortes, Port Angeles, and La Conner. The tour’s wildlife guides boast unmatched expertise in locating and showcasing the majestic humpback whales, elusive minke whales, and migrating gray whales, which is consistent with their track record of whale-watching tour successes. Plus, some of their tours come with a “whale guarantee,” meaning if you don’t see a whale, you can come back for free on another tour.
Outer Island Expeditions – Anacortes and Orcas Island
Diving deep into the rich marine landscape of Eastsound, Outer Island Expeditions stands out with its multifaceted offerings. They offer highly-rated whale watching tours from Anacortes and Orcas Island. You can contact them to add on additional adventure activities like fishing and kayaking.
Watching Orcas from the Shore: The Whale Trail
Want to see whales without the threat of seasickness? Then the Whale Trail is the Washington whale watching experience for you. This unique initiative originated in Washington in 2008, and is a series of specific areas where you can see whales, dolphins or other marine mammals from shore. Its aim is to encourage and inspire an appreciation and stewardship of whales and the marine environment. This organization has also established educational facilities which teach the public about historical significance of specific locations or whale conservation efforts. The trail has expanded along the Pacific Coast, into Canada and California, and now includes over 100 sites.
If whale watching from shore appeals to you, there are many options, and can also be accessed from Seattle. You can take a short water taxi ride or drive down to Alki Beach, where you have a good chance of spotting orca whales from the shore. Orcas frequent this area during the fall and winter months especially, but may also be around during the spring and summer.
You can also still enjoy whale watching on the San Juan Islands, from the shore rather than by boat. Lime Kiln State Park, which is part of the Whale Trail, is located on the west coast of San Juan Island, and offers breath-taking views. Spanning more than three acres, this park is known as one of the best places in the world to watch these amazing mammals from the shore. From May to September, you can catch pods of resident orcas, quite close to the shoreline. A lighthouse at the north end contains a center that conducts orca research, and its doors are open for tours during the summer months.
What to Pack for Whale Watching
The weather is always cooler near the water, and you will be much more comfortable if you can add/remove layers as needed. The weather can go from hot and humid, to very cool and wet quite quickly, and the last thing you want to worry about is being too hot or too cold.
An Excellent Camera
A camera or phone that takes clear shots and has a good zoom feature would be essential to have during your whale watching experience, if you want those lasting memories.
Many newer phones have improved camera capabilities, but the zoom features often still leave much to be desired. For those who want to splurge, I use the Fuji X-T4 and have been super happy with how approachable but fully featured it is. If you want to spend a little less, but still enjoy shooting videos and catching stunning photos of the orcas in motion, the Canon EOS M50 Mark II Mirrorless Camera is also a great option, and is much more affordable.
These waterproof, fog-proof binoculars from Amazon are a great option, with excellent reviews and an affordable price. With 18X magnification, and a comfortable grip, these make these perfect for outdoor conditions during wildlife viewing. They also come with a tripod and a phone adaptor, so you can capture the whales on your phone at the most opportune moments!
Lightweight Windproof/Waterproof Jacket
If you’re going to be spending time in the Pacific Northwest, you need a high-quality rain jacket. I use and love this one. It’s lightweight, flattering, and super high quality. The men’s version is here and worth the spend!
Rubber-Soled Anti-Slip Shoes
Waterproof and anti-slip shoes are a must while on boat decks, such as these low profile men’s ankle boots from Amazon, or these super durable, comfortable and waterproof Sperry ankle boots for women.