Kayaking with Whales on San Juan Island

June 17, 2019

Some of my best experiences guiding over the years in San Juan Island are all the encounters with killer whales. It is no secret that San Juan Island is well known for having the opportunity to kayak with whales, and possibly the best place in the lower 48 to do so. Working at Discovery Sea Kayaks we set out to design specific routes that would increase the potential to kayak with whales. Over the years we have had tremendous success with our kayak tours encountering whales and various marine wildlife. Orca whale San Juan Island

As with everything, change happens. Today we have seen a lot of changes in around the San Juan Islands and the whales we encounter on our kayak tours. With all of this change, we are making changes as well to seek out the best areas to kayak with whales on San Juan Island.

Today we still find our classic routes along the west side of San Juan Island still provides the best potential to kayak with whales. But we are also seeing more killer whales while kayaking along the east side of San Juan Island. The obvious question here is, Why?

The west side of San Juan Island has been the common travel corridor of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW’s). So we have routes that depart to the west side every day for Full Day, Half Day and Sunset Kayak Tours. The SRKW’s are fish-eating orca whales. They specialize in feKayak whale watching San Juan Islandeding on King Salmon that are making their way through the San Juan’s to their spawning grounds. Along the west side of San Juan, King Salmon collect numbers as they make their way north. Killer Whales will use the shore to chase salmon from the depths into shallow bays and heard the fish into groups for easier picking. For years this area has been the best place to see whales on San Juan Island. The change started to happen when the King Salmon populations start to decrease. Today we have a major reduction in King Salmon stocks and this has lead to Southern Resident Killer Whales to travel to other regions seeking their prize.

In the absence of the Southern Resident Killer Whales another group of whales has been moving into the San Juan Islands in large numbers, the Bigg’s Killer Whales. Bigg’s Killer Whales have a different prize on their menu and the San Juan Island’s happen to have plenty of what they are seeking, Harbor Seals. Though Harbor Seals are not the only item on the menu. We have plenty of Stellar Sealions and porpoise that round out the diet for Bigg’s Killer Whales in the area. The difficulty with Bigg’s Killer Whales is they have not defined travel pattern. Often traveling in smaller numbers than the SRKW’s, they can be more difficult to find. They also utilize different territory than the SRKW’s, spending more time along the east and south side of San Juan Island. For this reason, we started operating kayak tours from our private dock space in the Porth of Friday Harbor. This gives us the opportunity to kayak with whales off the east side of San Juan Island.

With our ever-changing environment, we expect to continually evolve our kayak tour options to maximize of chances of kayaking with whales. It should be noted that kayaking with whales should always be done ethically and following all laws. Regulation are in place to so that the killer whales space is respected and they can swim freely without harassment.

All Discovery Sea Kayak guides are certified by the Whale Museum to take guests out to kayak with killer whales. So rest assured when you reserve a tour with Discovery Sea Kayaks, we are going to provide you the best experience around wildlife while respecting their space.

Group of killer whales San Juan Island



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