They came to the water’s surface like elegant dancers, their dorsal fins tickling the air. Breaths were gasped. Pictures were snapped. Little children pointed with glee.
Until then – until that moment when I saw my first Orca – I didn’t get it. I’d been told that images, video, and stories pale in comparison to seeing these noble creatures first hand. Just how true this is, I didn’t realize.
How mammals of that size can move with such grace is beyond me. But they do.
Just outside Friday Harbor – in the waters that twist and turn around the San Juan Islands – Orcas swim in pods. They hunt. They eat. And occasionally, they play.
While several island lookouts offer land-based whale watching opportunities, the best views are from the water. Getting out on a boat with an experienced captain is your best bet to see them. This is why Kenmore Air partners with San Juan Safaris – a whale watching operation based out of Friday Harbor.
These folks know what they’re doing. And, I’m not just saying this for kicks and giggles. Yes, they are our partners. But, we work with them for good reason – they have a 90% Orca spotting success rate!
In addition to their impressive ability to follow the whales, San Juan Safaris also hires expert naturalists to accompany their tour groups. Armed with a wealth of knowledge, these folks are available to answer questions, point out additional wildlife, and describe the natural habitat as you see it.
What else will you see while out and about with San Juan Safaris?
Tons! Over 250 different species of birds live or migrate to the San Juan Islands. Many of these magnificent creatures frequent the shoreline and the nearby waters. You’ll often be able to spot bald eagles perched in trees. Great blue herons can regularly be seen close to shore. Double-crested cormorants like to hang out on rocks while taking a break from their daily fishing expeditions. (See a full list of birds here.)
You might see harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises, and otters.
While passing Spieden Island – a 550 acre, privately owned island north of San Juan – you might observe a few non-native animals such as Corsican big horn sheep and Fallow deer from Asia. (In 1969, a group of investors bought the uninhabited island to transform it into a shooting preserve. More than 30 years ago, the preserve was shut down. But, the non-native wildlife that had been imported remains to this day – living harmoniously together.)
Just a Day Trip
If you’re in Seattle and you want to maximize your time – Kenmore’s your best bet. Why? Because there are just two ways to get to the San Juan Islands: by boat or by plane. That’s it. If there is absolutely no traffic, you could catch the Anacortes ferry and be in Friday Harbor in just over 2.5 hours. This is a big if.
With Kenmore Air, there’s no driving. There are no lines. And, the flight is just 45-minutes.
To catch a San Juan Safaris tour, you typically board an 11:00 AM flight out of Lake Union to Friday Harbor and return on a 5:30 PM flight. This leaves time for a morning trip to the original Starbucks and an evening dinner at one of Seattle’s fantastic restaurants. If you ask me, that’s maximizing your time in Seattle!
Get Lunch on the Island – Between your arrival in Friday Harbor and the departure of your San Juan Safaris whale watching tour, you’ll typically have about an hour. While this doesn’t leave you enough time to explore the island, it does give you plenty of time to grab a bite to eat. Right around the check-in booth you’ll find:
It was a sad day for our taste buds when Friday Harbor’s popular Downriggers seafood house burned down last year. Thankfully, you can still get their Baja fish tacos, salmon sandwiches, and clam chowder. During construction, their team is dishing up the same high-quality fare from their new Roadriggers food truck.
This pop-up pizza stand is operated by the Bakery San Juan. Less seafood and more contemporary pie than their rolling sister – these slices are large and surprisingly affordable.
Long and narrow, this tiny ice cream shop will make you reconsider Baskin Robbins. Offering 72 flavors – that’s more than double what you’ll find at the mainland mega chain – this isn’t any sub-par affair. Friday Harbor Ice Cream Co.’s cold treats are high quality – massive scoops of goodness that you can’t help savoring with a smile.
Pack Some Water & A Small Snack – No drinks or snacks are for sale aboard the boat. If you don’t bring them, you don’t have them. And, tours are 3 – 4 hours long. If you get hungry or thirsty, that’s a long time to wait. It’s best to have a little something in case you want it.
When will you be checking whale watching in the San Juan Islands off your bucket list?