Wildlife Watching in the San Juan Islands

Despite intense yearning and best efforts, guests and crew aboard the M/V Sea Hawk were reminded that one can flip only so many whale tails before you’re certain to get a deadhead.  After a lucky run of tours over the past week, which included multiple whale species, the laws of statistics came bear, resulting in not one sighting of a cetacean today.

No matter, our guests could still be heard chattering and laughing from the Canadian shoreline as we plied the international waters in search of the lesser appreciated, but equally intriguing denizens of the Salish Sea.  “Awes” and “oohs” were heard when we sidled up to a mass of Steller’s sea lions in Spieden Channel.  The beasts responded with strange sounds of their own that are best imitated by the cartoon character Homer Simpson upon finishing a beer.  Soaring eagles traced the contours of Spieden Island while big horn sheep and fallow deer took advantage of the rare abundance of forage brought on by the spring.

At one point, Captain Brian expertly positioned the Sea Hawk so close to the cliffs of Turn Point that guests could reach out and feel the polished cobbles of the glacial conglomerate.  Looking down into the dark water, we were exciting to spot two violet gems clinging to the wall.  Once too numerous to count, these purple sea stars are a rare and welcome site.  In recent years, our colorful sea star population has all but disappeared due to a wasting disease that appears to be tied to warming sea water.  Rounding Stuart Island, we made a final survey of Haro Strait before gliding into Roche Harbor to be greeted by parting clouds and a tease of sunshine.

Andrew Munson

Naturalist, M/V Sea Hawk

San Juan Outfitters


A Guide to Wildlife in the San Juan Islands

A Guide to Wildlife in the San Juan Islands

Did you know the San Juan Islands are home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the entire world? It’s true!


Every time we set out on a whale watching tour by boat, our number one goal is to see whales. Most days we do, but we also see a huge variety of other wildlife, including animals many of our guests have never seen up close before! Our kayak tours encounter a variety of diverse wildlife, and sometimes whales, too!


If you ever join us on one of our unforgettable tours in Friday Harbor or Roche Harbor, here’s a preview of some of the exciting wildlife you might encounter:


Everyone wants to see whales, and it’s easy to understand why. They’re elegant, majestic animals, and seeing them in the wild is just plain amazing!


Orcas (“Killer Whales”)


Orca whales (a.k.a. killer whales) are the largest of the dolphin species. Orcas are known for being curious and intelligent. They’re also excellent predators, but not all orcas are after the same prey.


There are two distinct genotypes of orcas in the Puget Sound:

Resident Orcas

  • Eat fish

  • Travel in large, socially complex pods, each lead by a matriarch

  • Stay with the same pod for life, making each pod a cohesive family group

Transient Orcas

  • Eat mammals like seals, porpoise, and occasionally gray or humpback whales

  • Travel in small pods of 3-5

  • Have a broad range of travel from California to Alaska


Read more about orca whales.

Baleen Whales

We often see baleen whales in the San Juan Islands too! Baleen whales are a group of species that includes humpback, gray, and minke whales.


Humpback Whale


Humpback whales can grow to 52 feet and often feed in the Puget Sound area during the fall before traveling to tropical waters for the winter. Humpback whales are famous for the amazingly complex song that the males sing. In 2015 alone, approximately 50 different humpback whales were sighted in the Salish Sea, and more are expected to travel through every year!


Gray Whale


Gray whales are a little smaller, only growing up to 45 feet. They have the longest annual migration route of any mammal (10,000 to 12,000 miles a year!).

Minke Whale


Minke whales only average about 30 feet in length. There are about 17 minke whales in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands, but that doesn’t mean we never see them! They love traveling in groups and eating schooling fish during summer months.


Did you know? The word “baleen” actually refers to the filter-feeder system that these whales have inside their mouths. Baleen is similar to bristles, but it’s made out of keratin, like human hair and nails. Baleen whales catch food by taking in water through their mouths and trapping crustacean, fish, and krill in their baleen plate.


A humpback whale with a visible baleen plate



Bird lovers have a blast on our tours! We’ve seen so many amazing species up close, including bald eagles, hooded mergansers, both double-crested and pelagic cormorants, common murres, tufted puffins, and rhinoceros auklets. We also see harlequin ducks, herring gulls, pigeon guillemots, both Pacific and common loons, great blue herons, and so many more that there’s not space to list them!


In fact, there are so many birds to see in the San Juans that we offer special Birding Safaris. Most birds enjoy being on or around our waters during fall, winter, and spring. Many have already migrated by summer, but some stick around.

Seals & Sea Lions


We love seeing seals and sea lions whenever we get the chance, and we see quite a bit of both.


Many people ask us: What is the difference between seals and sea lions? They’re closely related, but it’s easy to tell them apart once you know what to look for:


Sea lions are big and brown and have large flippers they use to “walk” on land. Seals are smaller, have small flippers, and move around on land by wriggling on their bellies. Sea lions also have visible ear flaps, which seals don’t have. Another difference? Sea lions are loud! They can make a noisy barking sound to communicate and interact with each other.

Dall’s Porpoises


The Dall’s porpoise is a small black and white marine mammal. Its colors can make it easy to mistake for an orca from afar, but Dall’s porpoises are shaped differently, with thick bodies and small heads.


We’ve also been known to see harbor porpoises in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands. Harbor porpoises are a little smaller and usually gray in color.


Like killer whales and dolphins, porpoises are very intelligent and social, often traveling in groups.

Starfish, Jellyfish, and Other Invertebrate Sea Life


If you look closely enough, you’re also likely to see a huge variety of smaller sea life in the waters around the San Juan Islands too. Starfish are always a treat, and we see many different kinds of jellyfish, including:


  • Moon jellyfish: Beautiful, with an opaque white color and a very mild sting

  • Water jellyfish: Almost completely transparent with lines running along their bells

  • Lion’s mane jellyfish: Large and brilliantly maroon with a powerful sting

  • Fried egg jellyfish: Look just like an egg with a white bell and yellow internal organs

So Much More

The waters surrounding the San Juan Islands truly are a one-of-a-kind ecosystem. This guide just scratches the surface of all the amazing animals we see. For example, we often see families of river otters swimming around near our tours.


That’s why each of our tour groups is accompanied by a marine naturalist. Our naturalists are enthusiastic, passionate, and extremely knowledgeable. They make sure all guests have the time of their lives! Plus, more than 95% of our vessel tour groups see whales!



With San Juan Outfitters, you have the option of getting down in the water with these amazing creatures in a kayak, or enjoying the unforgettable experience from the comfort of one of our Coast Guard approved vessels.


Book your trip now, or call (866) 810-1483 and ask us your questions. We hope to see you on the water soon!

Photo credits: Phalacrocorax pelagicusCC BY 2.0Gray whale spyhopping 6CC BY 2.0

December 20, 2016


Snow Falls in the San Juan Islands – December 9, 2016


Roche Harbor Resort Snow

Last night around 11:00 PM, snow began falling on the quiet community of San Juan Island. It gently snowed all through the night, and produced this magical snowy island scene. It’s not often the Friday Harbor receives snow; the Pacific Ocean regulates our temperate climate. It’s a rare event for San Juan Island to get any measurable snow!

Snow on San Juan Island

December 9, 2016

Fall Feelings: L pod Orcas forage and play near Middle Bank – September 20, 2016

Tomorrow is the Autumnal Equinox! And even though this signals the true end to summer, this doesn’t mean that all the whales leave as all the humans have started to do. Whales actually travel through these waters all year round! Yesterday, though, still felt a little bit like summer. Captain Brian, myself and some wonderful guests took the M/V Seahawk south to search for the Southern Resident Orcas. They have been in the inland waters the past few days foraging for salmon. But that wasn’t the only exciting things we saw. ON our way there we saw a few Dall’s  Porpoise which are odd looking animals that travel in fast moving groups. Sometimes their speeds reach a point that they throw “rooster tails” as they are swimming (these are the sprays that you see off of jet skis). After them we saw a few glimpses of a Minke Whale further south. Minkes are the second smallest baleen whales in the world and you usually smell them before you see them and we definitely did with this one.

Finally we started to see a small group of orcas! It was part of L pod swimming a little bit north of Middle Bank foraging for fish and sometimes being goofy.  The group we saw was pretty unique. The first one we saw was Mega (L41) who is a very large male orca. He tail slapped a few times and spyhopped to probably check out the research drone that the Vancouver Aquarium was using to get a better look at this family. Then there was Calypso (L94) with her two children Cousteau (L113) and Windsong (L121) who is just a year and a half old! Mega is Calypso’s brother and since their mother is not alive any more he is often seen travelling with her or his other sister, Matia (L77). The last orca that was in this group was Ocean Sun (L25) the second oldest orca that we know of and the oldest in L pod. She was estimated to have been born in 1928 and is probably the mother of Lolita, the only remaining Southern Resident Orca still in captivity. It was awesome to be alone on such a calm day with this family group and watch them feed and gracefully socialize with each other. Makes me love fall even more. Well Happy fall everyone and have a San Juanderful day!


Naturalist Erick

M/V Seahawk

San Juan Outfitters



J pod outside of Roche Harbor–September 10th, 2016

J16 Slick surfacing


This afternoon, Captain Gabe and I set off from Roche Harbor with arguably the best dressed guests we’ve ever had on board. They had just had a wedding! Normally, I would have advised the ladies to change clothes before getting on the boat–just because the wind can be chilly. But this group came fully prepared, with carefully picked out and coordinated sweaters to go with the dresses, and blankets for all. Luckily though, we were having perfect weather with lots of sunshine and very little wind.

Not only that, but we had whales very close to Roche Harbor–it was proving to be a great trip before it even started. In fact, I even started the day by watching whales from Lime Kiln Point State Park, one of just 4 times in my two years here that I’ve seen them from shore. We met up with the J16s, one of my favorite matrilines in the southern resident community, just northwest of Battleship Island. We stuck with these guys all the way to Turn Point. From here, we (and the whales) continued in to Boundary Pass. There, we spotted J27 Blackberry, and quite a few others from J pod.

On the way in, we got a beautiful look at a Bald Eagle on Speiden Island, as well as some harbor seals, and some fallow deer bucks with HUGE antlers!

Another successful day on the ‘Ol Hawk.


Naturalist Alex

M/V Sea Hawk

San Juan Outfitters