Nature Road Trip: Whale Watching in Washington State

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If you haven’t met Washington State’s official marine mammal yet, this summer is the perfect time to introduce yourself. By far, of course. The killer whale has been named our state’s official marine mammal – after a two-year campaign by second-graders in Oak Harbor, Washington.

The summer whale watching season brings humpback whales, southern resident orcas, Biggs (passenger) orcas and other whales to our waterways. The non-profit organization Whale Trail promotes a series of over 100 Pacific Coast destinations well suited for marine mammal viewing, from California to Canada. The site offers great tips for watching whales from shore, including how to scan the horizon for plumes, fins and flukes.

Where to see whales in Washington

Whale Trail sites dot the Washington coast from Long Beach to the Olympic Peninsula, then around the Salish Sea and deep into Puget Sound. Pack binoculars to visit a few stops on the Washington Whale Trail, learn about the creatures at a museum, or go on a whale-watching trip to one of the following areas.

Whale Watching on the Washington Coast and Peninsula

While you can pick just about any whale-watching spot along the coast, some are closer to whale-free accommodation, dining, and entertainment options.

Salish Sea/Island Whale Watching

This area is prized for its proximity to Seattle – and the migrating and resident whales. Many excursions depart and sail the area.

Whale Watching in Puget Sound

While you might not find the diversity of the regions above, you also won’t need to drive far to spend an hour or two scanning the horizon or enjoying a picnic.

Washington Whale Museums and Institutions

The granddaddy of whale-centric museums is aptly called the Whale Museum at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. The museum’s whale gallery features interactive exhibits, giant skeletons, and historical exhibits about local marine mammals, including pods of orcas in the surrounding waters. If you spy a whale during your stays, report a sighting to the museum’s Whale Hotline or use the Whale Alert app to identify and report whales.

But several other aquatic-themed destinations offer opportunities to discover and encounter marine mammals both indoors and nearby, including the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium (seals, walruses, otters), the Marine Science Center of Port Townsend and the Langley Whale Center on Whidbey Island.

Whale Watching Tours near Seattle

Whale watching tours can be a more effective way to find graceful mammals. Some can even guarantee a whale sighting, with sighting rates of 90% or more during the summer season. Boats can get closer to wildlife than you could on shore, though crews must follow local, state, and federal whale watching regulations (generally staying 100-400 yards away) .

The routes are popular in the summer and offer the chance to see killer whales, Dall’s porpoises, harbor porpoises, minke whales and humpback whales. You’ll likely see other wildlife, such as sea lions, seals, porpoises, otters, bald eagles, and other seabirds.

Tours can be half or full day and cost around $100-120 per adult, less for children. Most depart from ports near the Salish Sea, the body of water between Washington and Vancouver Island. Snacks or meals may be offered or included, as well as naturalist advice.

Clipper Vacations operates the only whale watching tour from Seattle at Pier 69. The half-day cruise lasts 4-6 hours and features onboard naturalists, the ability to order food and beverages from origin and seat selection.

Half-day and full-day summer trips from Puget Sound Express depart in the summer from Edmonds, Port Townsend and, beginning in 2022, Port Angeles. Packed lunches can be ordered in advance, and a kitchen serves snacks and freshly baked blueberry curls. Onboard naturalists help to understand the surrounding geography, history and wildlife.

San Juan Island Outfitters embarks on waterway tours near the San Juan Islands, departing from Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. On a 55-foot boat, naturalists and captains share information and report wildlife, and a field guild library is also on board.

On Whidbey Island, Deception Pass Tours offers whale-watching tours by high-speed catamaran on Saturday mornings. These half-day tours also provide background history on local waters, regional characters, and a ride through the whirlpools of Deception Pass.

Outer island tours depart from Anacortes and various nearby islands — Orcas Island, Lopez Island, and Lummi Island — on speedy, smaller boats. Naturalists are on board to guide you through the 3-4 hour tour.

Further north of Bellingham, San Juan Cruises departs for full-day whale watching tours with wildlife guides. A trip on the 100-foot boat includes a complimentary onboard lasagna lunch and full bar.

To note: Visit Bewhalewise.org to learn more about killer whale recovery efforts – there are only 74 resident killer whales left in local waters – and learn more about what you can do to protect local marine mammals and other wildlife. More information is available from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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