Whale Watching Cruises

Whale Watching Cruises: About whale watching excursions in the Pacific Northwest, including whale watching season and whale watching tour companies.

Embarking on a whale watching cruise is one of the most exciting adventures to be had, and the Pacific Northwest is considered to be one of the best places in the world to do it. 

What makes the beautiful Pacific Northwest so perfect for whale watching cruises

Though most of the whale population migrates annually, an estimated 85-90 orcas (aka: killer whales), reside full-time around southern Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands, with 250 more that live permanently along Vancouver Island's northeast coast.

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Below: Breaching humpback whale. Photo credit: Flickr user Steve Miller under Creative Commons 2.0

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In addition, the west coast of Vancouver Island sees an estimated 21,000 migrating grey whales annually on their way from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to their southern, winter breeding grounds in Hawaii, Mexico and South America. Grey whales, humpbacks and minke whales also make the Pacific Northwest their home and migrate seasonally.

Weighing in at between 20-40 tons and 35-50 feet long, a breaching whale is a sight like none other. It's hard to imagine the strength necessary to propel a beast of that size up through and above the water's surface to form a perfect arching barnacle-encrusted back flip back down into the depths.

Whale Watching Season

Though orca, grey, humpback, and minke whales can all be sighted throughout the year here in the Pacific Northwest, the best times to see them are:

  • Southern Resident Orca Whales: April - October; they also follow the salmon migration
  • Transient Orcas: most often in the summer, as they feed on abundant smaller marine animals
  • Grey Whales: March - April, during their spring migration
  • Humpback Whales: May - June, and September - October, during their migration
  • Minke Whales: almost year-round, though they can be somewhat shy

Whale Watching from Land

If you prefer to remain a landlubber at heart there are many locations for whale watching along the shores of both Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands.

Vancouver Island Land-Based Whale Watching:

Campbell River and Telegraph Cove, on the east side of Vancouver Island along the Strait of Georgia, are good places to whale watch.

Broughton Archipelago Provincial Park on the northeast side of Vancouver Island, is British Columbia's largest marine park, and a great place to explore and watch for whales.

San Juan Island Land-Based Whale Watching:

Since whales can be found throughout the San Juan Archipelago, there are numerous land-based locations. 

  • West side of San Juan Island:
    Probably the best whale watching site of all is Lime Kiln Point State Park, affectionately known as Whale Watch Park. The Park is open from 8AM until dusk, year round. A Discover Pass is required.

    San Juan County Park is to the north of Lime Kiln

    Westside Scenic Preserve is also on the west of the island but south of Lime Kiln
  • South end of San Juan Island:
    American Camp, South Beach and Cattle Point Lighthouse. A Discover Pass is required for Cattle Point.

Kayaking with the Whales

If you're a kayaker, any of the above places are great for whale watching. 

Plus, there are many companies that offer guided kayak whale watching tours. A google search of "guided kayak whale watching tours" (quotes not needed) will score you a ton of information. Depending on your expected location, you can also narrow your search with qualifiers such as 'vancouver island,' 'San Juan Islands,' 'PNW,' etc.

Below: Orca porpoising. Photo Credit: Wiki

There is More to Whale Watching Cruises than just Whales

There is more to see than just whales when you take a whale watching cruise, as spectacular as whales are.

It's hard to miss the thousands of bird species along the way. Orange-beaked tufted puffins, creamy white and grey western gulls, oyster catchers, cormorants, and many other sea birds make regular appearances.

You may also see porpoises, seals, and even bears.

Add the spectacular scenery to all the mammals, birds, and marine species, and it's a regular wildlife adventure movie, with you in a front row seat.

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Environmental Status of Whales Today

In the past whales were hunted for use in making oil for cosmetics, soap and lighting; whale meat for food; and clothing - a whale-boned corset anyone? Over-hunting for these resources by commercial whaling operations put them on the endangered species list.

Modern technology in the last century has replaced the whale for some of those products, and the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act now protects them from hunters in the United States. Several indigenous populations are excepted; they are still allowed to harvest the whale, using mostly traditional methods.

Though some species are still considered endangered, the whale population in the Pacific Northwest continues to slowly grow.

> Whale Watching Cruises

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