Orca Whales in the San Juan IslandsChoosing a Whale Watch Tour

Choosing which whale watching tour to go out on will be your most difficult decision. There are so many types of companies that call themselves "whale watch tours."

If seeing whales is your #1 goal then pick a company that guarantees sightings. These companies are dedicated whale watching companies, not ferry services, dinner cruises, or wildlife tours who moonlight as whale watching companies. They are generally more experienced than the rest, and will go the "extra mile" to make it happen for you.

When looking at other websites look for whale sightings reports and statistics from the current and previous seasons. Claims of "90% success rate!" are empty promises unless backed up by real numbers. Reported numbers of whale sightings will show how experienced a company really is, and how good they are at getting to the whales. Good tours should also have whale savvy captains, trained naturalists, and whale watch boats that can legally cross the international border with Canada. High quality on board sound systems that allow you to easily hear the narration from the naturalist will also add to your experience.

When you book your whale watch don't be afraid to ask questions about the whales, and what the whale watchers have been seeing. Ask specifics - if the sales person can't quickly tell you where the whales are, or where they were yesterday, they are probably reading off of a script. A good office that is truly into the whale watching experience will be able to answer all of your questions.

The boats leaving the mainland normally run longer tours, on larger, more comfortable boats, for about the same price as out in the San Juan Islands. They also have the advantage when the whales are in the west or north end of their range. If the whales are in the middle of their range the longer tours will get to spend more time watching whales, and experiencing other wildlife along the way. 3-4 hour trips are only a good value if your boat can travel in excess of 30 knots. This is important because you will not get enough time with the whales if the boat travels slower than this. A 5-6 hour trip has a great advantage in that you will get plenty of "whale time." A trip longer than 7 hours can be grueling for kids, and older folks. These long trips usually mean a slow boat.

Anacortes is the most popular departure point for the educated consumer and Island Adventures is the oldest and most experienced whale watch company departing from Anacortes.

If you are going to stay overnight on one of the San Juan Islands anyway, and have adequately planned for the ferry schedule (which is often interrupted by mechanical problems due to the aging fleet of Washington State ferries), there are some great companies operating from San Juan Island. Most island-based companies will have a 72 hour cancellation policy so if you miss the ferry, your money is gone. The San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce recommends that you get in line for the ferry up to 4.5 hours before departure time, but at least 1.5 hours ahead during off-peak departure times. (When shopping prices, keep in mind that extra fees will apply for taking the ferry or parking at the ferry terminal if you walk-on. 2008 fares on the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor are : Vehicle and driver $51.20; passenger $13.15; Motorhomes between 20 and 30 feet $153.60. Parking on the Anacortes side is $10-$15.) An alternative worth considering is a short, and pretty, flight on San Juan Air from Anacortes to Friday Harbor.

On San Juan you will do best going out with Maya's Whale Watch, or Western Prince Cruises. Look out for the companies that appear to spend more time advertising than they do on their tours.If you go with a company who has an "administrative" owner, then you are sure to get a scripted, tourist trap type of experience.

Be sure to choose a company whose owner is also an operator (licensed captain)!

Evening Whale Watching

Evening whale watching in the San Juan IslandsIn the summertime we think that the Evening Whale Watch trips are a fantastic option. Maya's Whale Watch runs a great trip out of Snug Harbor on San Juan Island's west side. Island Adventures runs an evening trip from Anacortes as well. Evening tours generally have fewer people on board, and the light for photography is incredible. In addition to these advantages, the whale location is known and the captains are sure to know what to expect before they leave the docks.

Year Round Whale Watching

There are whale watching trips available year round in Washington State. Summer is the high-season due to the sunny weather, and kids being out of school. Off-season whale watching can be amazing though, so don't be afraid of a rainy weather forecast. Several species of whales are around all year as well so don't listen to companies who tell you that the whales have "migrated" - these are the companies that are closed in the winter. October is the best month for Humpback Whales. November and December are great for Orca whale watching in the Seattle area. March and April are the best for seeing the Gray Whales. May through September is the prime season for the Resident Orcas in the San Juan Islands.


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