Sailing the San Juan Islands

Part Two of mine and Stephanie’s trip to Washington was spent on the water of the San Juan Islands. Ever since I was young, I’ve wanted to see an orca whale in the wild. I grew up loving the Free Willy movies and developed a fascination for the amazing species.

Part One: Sights of Seattle

After doing a lot of research, I found that the San Juan Islands is a great spot to see two groups of orcas: Southern Residents (diet: salmon) and Transients (diet: small mammals). We dedicated two full days of our trip to whale watching, and luckily had great weather both days! We traveled by ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor where we left for a boat tour and a kayak tour. We spent hours on the water but unfortunately, the closest we got to seeing an orca was at the Whale Museum. Nevertheless, we did see some other amazing wildlife.

The Western Prince II

We sailed on the Western Prince II for four hours and did our best to spot as many animals as we could. It’s harder than you’d think, but we had a great captain and naturalist on board who helped us out.

The highlight of the trip was seeing Scratchy the humpback whale. He got his name from the unfortunate scratches on his fluke. Following him in the water was exciting because he started off in the far distance and then progressively got closer until he was about 100 feet away.

All the animals in the water surrounding the San Juan Islands are protected, which means there are specific restrictions on how close humans can get to them. If the animal approaches a person and breaks the regulation, it’s not a human violation.

We also saw harbor seals, stellar sea lions, bald eagles, porpoises, puffins, and an elephant seal.

Sea Quest Expeditions

Most people would be terrified to kayak in waters with an 8,000+ pound whale, but I was excited to get as close as possible.

A six-hour kayak tour was an ambitious commitment for two novices at the sport, but we got through it! We had a beautiful day on the water with minimal roughness, which helped. Prior to hitting the water, we were trained on the equipment and safety procedures. We wore blue spray skirts to shield our legs from the water and wind – not so fashionable, but definitely needed. After the tour, our arms were covered in large patches of dried salt from the water that dripped off our paddles.

Stephanie and I originally started off in the same kayak, but after drifting in the wrong direction and not being able to turn around, the tour guide noticed our rudder was broken and swapped us into separate kayaks with more experienced kayakers. We quickly realized that worked out in our favor.

We saw harbor seals, stellar sea lions, porpoises, and a lot of different birds (bald eagle, great blue heron, Canada goose, auklet, etc.). The harbor seals were the most fun to kayak around because they were so curious. They swam about 15 feet away from our kayaks, popped their heads out of the water to take a look around, dove under, and then popped back up again in a different spot

On our lunch break, Stephanie and I learned that it’s “normal” to see raccoons out and about during the day on the San Juan Islands. You could imagine how frightening that was to us, especially when we saw one on the beach after we ate.

Friday Harbor

Friday Harbor is a small town on San Juan Island that welcomes tourists coming off the Washington ferry. It has a bunch of restaurants, souvenir shops, and many different whale watching tour options. We explored some of the town before and after our tours, visited The Whale Museum, ate a delicious salmon dinner at Blue Water Bar and Grill, and treated ourselves to ice cream cones from Friday Harbor Ice Cream Company. Coincidentally, we were in Friday Harbor on a Friday.

While we didn’t see orca whales on this trip, I am so grateful to have seen a humpback and so many other cool animals in their natural habitats.

My #1 on my bucket list remains unchecked, but I can check off traveling to the west coast and taking an amazing trip to Washington State. Looks like it’s back to researching and planning for me!