Whale Watching in San Juan Islands

We’d heard the San Juan Islands were an excellent opportunity to spot Killer whales (Orca). I’d never seen an Orca before and neither had Renee so we were both very keen to. Renee looked into whale watching tours and we eventually decided on Captain Jim’s. His sounded like a smaller business which we hoped would be able to provide a more personal and flexible experience. Jim’s like most guaranteed a whale sighting so we contacted him and signed up for the next day.

[slickr-flickr tag=”San Juan Islands”]

The day we signed up was picture perfect with barely any wind and still water, however the day we went out the water was choppy and made our progress out on Captain Jim’s smaller vessel slower than we’d have liked. Captain Jim was on the VHF radio talking to other vessels to locate the whales and eventually we intersected a pod. We’d come across ‘locals’ heading around one of the islands.

Orcas around the San Juan Islands are classified as either ‘local’ or ‘transient’, an apprentice of Jim’s explained to us, and the two different groups have not been known to mingle. The locals live around the islands year round and diet solely on fish, mostly the salmon populations. While the transients migrate, feeding on fish and mammals (seals, penguins, birds if they catch them – I’m not saying a bird is a mammal, just that the Orca will eat one if the opportunity arises). Jim’s apprentice, a girl from Florida with a passion for Orcas and a related bachelors degree in something went on to explain how the transients tend to be bigger, more aggressive and more likely to put on an exciting display.

Regrettably the pod we’d intersected were locals and they were moving not hunting. Captain Jim explained how Orcas hunt in pods like dolphins (and wolves). Working together they round up their prey for the slaughter, vastly superior to sharks who hunt alone. I know sharks hunt solo because  I’ve played hours of Hungary Shark on my phone.

From Jim’s boat we saw the Orcas surfacing, clearing their blow holes and what at a push we could call a ‘tail slap’. We were taught whale motion terminology such as ‘tail slap’ when a whale slaps the water with its tail along with ‘breaching’ – when a whale jumps and my personal favourite ‘spy hopping’ – when a whale pokes its head out of the water vertically and looks around.

Orca Tail Slapping

Orca Breaching

Orca Spy Hopping

Overall I was disappointed not to have seen more of a ‘show’, but bottom line we did see Orca’s and Captain Jim seemed like a decent bloke so I’d use him again if I were to go out on another tour.

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  1. Renee took all the good whale shots, somehow I managed to miss all the good opportunities despite having DSLR

  2. I had the strategy of snapping pictures randomly, without focussing or knowing the whale was even in the shot. I think about 5-10% ended up having a whale fin or tail in the end. It was a shame the whales weren’t feeling energetic enough to jump out of the water!

  3. We saw some amazing sunsets here!