The San Juan Islands and the Beautiful Orcas

San Juan Islands  031San Juan Islands  038One of the things I most looked forward to in the San Juan Islands was kayaking with the whales. When I was in my twenties I saw a photo of a kayaker looking over at a whale breaching and have wanted to do it since.  So in search of the beautiful orcas we went.San Juan Islands  003

San Juan Islands  002Our plan was to visit a couple of the islands, and, especially, the area where the orcas are prevalent.

Our campground was located between the towns of La Conner and Anacortes, the boarding point for ferries going to the San Juan Islands, so it all seemed fairly easy. San Juan Islands  045San Juan Islands  046

But first, we checked out the beach and the iconic bridge at Deception Pass State Park.San Juan Islands  007San Juan Islands  006San Juan Islands  005

San Juan Islands  039And sampled some local shellfish. Tasted sustainably farmed mussels from Penn Cove Shellfish on Whidbey Island.

San Juan Islands  040And bought clams and Pacific Oysters (super fresh) from Taylor Shellfish Farms, who have been farming shellfish for five generations. This amazing place offers about five different varieties of oysters (some in different sizes), and other shellfish.

There was an eagle fishing right behind the Taylor dock.  An impressive sight.

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Mount Baker, 10,781 feet high, was our new backdrop. And there were the islands.

San Juan Islands  013San Juan Islands  037San Juan Islands  009San Juan Islands  011San Juan Islands  010But back to the whales.  There are three pods of orcas, an extended family, called the Southern Resident Killer Whales that are frequently seen in the area between the months of April to October. One of the pods frequents the area west of San Juan Island – and this was our kayaking destination.

We weren’t quite ready for taking our own kayaks in unknown ocean waters to try to find whales. So I researched weather for the best boating day and called to book a kayak tour for that day on San Juan Island.  The flaw in my game plan was that the five hour kayak trip required that we take an early ferry out and a late one back. It was too long to leave Angel in the coach.

So we went with plan B and signed on with a shorter tour on a small motorboat, still avoiding the hugely crowded big boats.  Captain Carli’s Whale Watch takes out a maximum of six people out of Friday Harbor on his small boat.

We walked on to the direct ferry to San Juan Island. It was a perfect day to be on a boat, and we had smooth sailing to the picturesque village of Friday Harbor.

After a quick but delicious lunch of fish tacos and fish and chips out of a food truck on the dock, we walked onto Captain Carli’s boat, Soulmate.San Juan Islands  020San Juan Islands  014

San Juan Islands  016Because the whale watching captains have access to a whale-spotting network, he headed straight to a specific spot where the orcas had been feeding.San Juan Islands  028

The tour is very casual and laid-back, and Captain Carli is a very nice guy. It was so clear and calm that we could see Mount Rainier in the distance, with the Captain pointing out that this was a very rare treat.

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fuzzy picture … but this whale is swimming on its back!

fuzzy picture … but this whale is on its back!

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And then we found the whales. They were by the shore near Lime Kiln State Park, giving onlookers from the shore a huge treat. Thus the nickname for the park, Whale Watching park.

But the boats have to stay 400 yards away from the whales on shore. And, because they are by the shore, you can only approach from one angle, so the boats were lined up at the 400 yard mark.

The whales were basically rounding the shore, clearly feeding. Captain Carli says that these resident whales have a distinct diet from other orcas, they feed mainly on salmon. That’s why they stay here and don’t migrate north. Gourmet whales.

This was the first time we saw orcas in the wild. They were very active, swimming along on the surface. So we could see their backs and fins very clearly.

Then they started playing, breaching, swimming on their backs and tail slapping. These guys were fun!

And, to our amazement, they approached a group of kayakers paddling by the shore and breached twice right by their boats. Those kayakers scored!San Juan Islands  023

San Juan Islands  024San Juan Islands  022San Juan Islands  030Captain Carli heard of another group of whales and recommended we move on. As we arrived and stopped at the appropriate distance, two of the whales headed in our direction and we got a closer look. But these were traveling and they passed by us pretty quickly.San Juan Islands  032

San Juan Islands  033But it was a great day, and we did see lots of whales. On the way back, the Captain stopped to show us a huge eagle’s nest, with Mr. Eagle perched nearby.San Juan Islands  027

San Juan Islands  034San Juan Islands  035San Juan Islands  047And we had smooth sailing on the ferry back to Anacortes.

We planned a second outing to San Juan Island, this time in our car, and with Angel along, to explore Friday Harbor and walk out by the shore at Lime Kiln Park, “one of the best places in the world to see whales from shore” as we had witnessed from the boat. But it was just before the fourth of July and the ferry was full.  The next ferry was three hours later so we bailed on taking our car to any of the islands.

But we did walk on the ferry to Lopez Island with our bicycles.San Juan Islands  049

San Juan Islands  048Hector has always wanted to have his own island, and so Lopez Island was a must. And, since it’s the least hilly of the San Juan Islands, bicycling is very popular there. With no limits on bicycles, there’s no danger of not getting on the ferry and the fare is much cheaper.San Juan Islands  054

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It was a short outing, but the island is really pretty with lots of beautiful green fields on the way to the cute little village and harbor.  We had lots of fun taking photos by all the “Lopez” places and events.  We really felt right at home.

San Juan Islands  044But visiting the San Juan Islands requires more advance research than we did – about ferry costs for different configurations (such as kayaks on top of the car – pretty expensive), and how the whale watching operator schedules coincide with the ferry schedules.  And we also learned that we should avoid the ferry on peak times like the fourth of July.

And there is lots of great kayaking in the area, but we also realized that it’s important to really understand these waters to do it safely.  Next time we will plan better.  And there will be a next time.

For more information on the fascinating “Southern Resident Killer Whales”, click here.

~ BrendaSan Juan Islands  036

23 thoughts on “The San Juan Islands and the Beautiful Orcas

  1. Can you imagine being in a kayak and having the whales breach next to you…must be both thrilling and scary as heck at once!

    The island hopping looks fun, but it’s good to know about the planning (and expense) involved!

    • You said it, I’d love to see a whale breach by my kayak, while at the same time being terrified. I think we might try staying on one of the islands, next time. Of course it’s expensive to take the RV, but then inter island fares are cheap, so we’ll take all of that into account.
      Brenda

    • Yes, we will, and we may have another change on Vancouver island. Yes, we are a couple of happy campers for sure.
      Brenda

    • We love the whales, last year in Canada we saw six different types (on different tours)! Now on the West coast, we’ve seen two more types. It truly is a privilege.
      Brenda

  2. Gorgeous whale photos! How cool that they were breaching right next to the kayakers. We love the San Juan Islands — and Lopez is our favorite by far. In fact, we love it so much that this will be our fourth summer as interpretive hosts at Spencer Spit State Park (great place to camp, by the way). Summer on the islands is magical!

    • Really? Were you there two weeks ago? If so, I’m so sorry we missed you! Hosting on the islands sounds like a very interesting idea – I’d love to stay on the islands and from what I see the inter-island fare is pretty cheap too. Do you think there may be additional opportunities – next summer we’ll be in Alaska but the following summer could be a match.
      Brenda

      • We were supposed to be up there the first week of July, but have been delayed in our hometown of Ashland, OR (unexpected dental work, ugh). We’re heading up to Lopez next week and will stay into mid-September. Check out our blog for posts on our adventure last year on Lopez — it will give you a good idea of what life on the island is like. And yes, they may well have hosting opportunities available — email me if you would like more info. 🙂

        • Sorry about the unexpected dental work, it’s bad enough when it’s expected. Will check in on your blog posts for the island, we’ve had no wi-fi for a little bit.
          Brenda

  3. Kayaking with the whales sounds like so much fun but you did get a great second option. How exciting to see the whales so close. I’ve only ever seen them in photos or on TV. You certainly had a perfect day for the surrounding view. Someday, we ‘ll get there, too:) How neat that you took your bikes to one of the islands. A great way to see things if you don’t fit on the ferry with a car:) That’s how we get from NY to Kingston, Ontario. We take a ferry to Wolf Island, then bike the eight miles across and catch another ferry to Kingston for lunch. It is one of our annual activities while visiting my mother on the St. Lawrence River.

    • We saw six different types of whales last summer while in Canada!!! It was incredible, and to get to add two more here on the West Coast was beyond my dreams. Bicycling is a great option, but some of the islands are way too hilly for me.
      Brenda

  4. Awesome!!! Whales!!! Thanks for sharing you brave, bold, and beautiful buddies!!! I’ve heard that Friday Harbor is amazing and you sure do confirm that description. One of these days, I must visit!!! Travel on, sweet friends!!! Hugs to you and Angel!

  5. Another spectacular post! Love your photos. So glad I signed up. And what beautiful weather you’re having! (We are also cautious about where we kayak.)

    • Thanks for coming along with us! We’ve had some incredible luck with weather, and are hoping to kayak on Vancouver Island. I think Hector commented on your blog, as we’ll be in Alaska next summer, such a gorgeous place!
      Brenda

  6. My memories of Friday Island is a blur. We spent all day biking around the island non stop. As you said planning is essential, because we did not realize that it would take us all day to bike, the longest we ever had. We did not have enough time to explore.

    We stayed at Fidalgo Bay in Anacortes.

    Who knows the Lopez’s family might move to Lopez island, how about that!

    • Yes, there’s definitely more to those islands than meets the eye. I’m thinking we’ll go back and stay on one of them.
      Brenda

  7. What a great experience to watch the orcas breaching and see how close they came to those kayakers. I suspect now that you have seen that you may not be content until you are able to get out there and be one of those lucky kayakers. We would love to explore the San Juan Islands and I am with you Brenda, give me gentle sloping bike paths any day.

    • Wow, Margo. I could only see a bit, as our wi-fi here did not allow us to watch the entire videos, but enough to get a sense of his work. Fascinating, I really respect people like him who work so hard for the animals, in this case the whales. We’re now in Vancouver Island, on the north end (Telegraph Cove) and going to take a shot at kayaking with the whales again. it’s really remote here, we love it. Are you planning any trips to the U.S. this year?
      Brenda

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