Kayak with Killer Whales

May 27, 2015

It is pretty well known that kayaking on San Juan Islands provides a good opportunity to kayak alongside killer whales. But what a lot of visitors do not know is there are laws and regulations on how we operate as kayakers around killer whales and other wildlife in the San Juan Islands. Let me be clear that the laws and regulation in place are for all kayakers commercial and noncommercial.

There have always been marine animal protection laws. The Marine Mammal Protection Act creates a buffer zone around marine wildlife. From seals hauled on rocks to approaching a resting sea lion,  the MMPA states you must maintain a distance of 100 yards from the animals. In all instances, Discovery Sea Kayaks always tries to maintain a proper distance from wildlife. The situation does arise where we are closer than the designated 100 yards. These reasons can be for the safety of the group due to weather conditions or simply being surprised by a surfacing animal.

To further add complexity to the region the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW’s) are listed as an endangered species. With this designation, many laws were created and existing laws were strengthened. The area designated for the recovery for SRKW’s is known as the Critical Recovery Area. It just so happens this critical area is exactly where we paddle. So many changes started happening quickly for kayak tour operators. To have a more unified voice commercial operators on the San Juan Islands created the San Juan Island Kayak Association (SJIKA). Not all companies in the area felt the need to join the conversation as a unified group. In the process several years ago now, government regulators turned to SJIKA to represent the interest of commercial kayaking on San Juan Island. This gave us an opportunity to be a part of the process and help shape some of the guidelines in place today. SJIKA not only agreed to support all laws but went a step further and created operational guidelines for commercial operators were adopted by The Whale Museum. Later the San Juan Island County Parks system, where most commercial kayak tour companies based on San Juan Island depart, enlisted The Whale Museum and Sountwatch to lead the Kayaker Education Leadership Program (KELP). The KELP certification is required of all guides who depart from San Juan Island and every noncommercial kayaker is required to sit through a short video and pay a fee to launch from San Juan County Park.


I feel it is very important that everyone understand that kayaking along the west side of San Juan Island from San Juan County Park to the Lime Kiln State Park, that you are in the middle of the critical area designated for the recovery of the SRWK’s. So understanding the guidelines and laws is important to understand why it is crucial that everyone on the water does their best to adhere to these rules.

The laws associated with protecting the SRKW’s can be steep. With increased law enforcement tasked with monitoring and enforcing laws around SRKW’s, I strongly recommend if plan on kayaking without a local guide, to familiarize yourself with the laws and regulations in place.


The San Juan Island Kayak Association has been fortunate to have sit down meetings with regulators and law enforcement to share the perspective of a kayaker of being on the water. This type of conversation is what leads to a step by step process of how kayakers should behave around killer whales to decrease the chances of breaking the law. The officers in the area are very familiar with our limitation in waves and current and will look at the behavior of the kayak with many other factors to determine if laws were broken. Please see the following link of an outline of how your guide should operate their tour if killer whales are present. http://www.sjika.org/

It is important when selecting companies for your kayak experience that you select those who are responsible for your safety and the safety of the wildlife. Members of the San Juan Island Kayak Association go above and beyond the requirements to create a safe environment for everyone, including the wildlife.

Do not be afraid to ask the question when reserving your kayak tour on San Juan Island. Your safety should be important. If a company tells you PFD (life vest) are optional, I would recommend thinking twice about the safety of the operator. Coldwater and often high current water can be dangerous. PFD’s should be worn at all times on the water. If a company guarantees an up close and personal experience with killer whales, I would think about the laws and the overall safety to the animals that are doing their best to forage and survive.  You do not have to be aggressive to enjoy views of the killer whales. Even following the agreed-upon guidelines you can still have close proximity encounters along the shoreline. There is never an instance where groups should paddle offshore to be in the middle of a killer whale pod.

So when you reserve your kayak tour on San Juan Island have an open perspective of what you might encounter and what the wildlife encounter might be like. Every day is different on the water, from smooth seas too rough seas, to killer whales swimming the shore to forage bald eagles. The San Juan Islands offer a unique opportunity to encounter a diverse range of wildlife in a small region. The beauty of the coastline along with view across the strait to the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island, it is always a good day on the water.

Thank you for reading.

Discovery Sea Kayaks

SJIKA Members

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