Have questions about San Juan Island, Sea Kayaking and Killer Whales?

Here are a few FAQ’s about killer whales around San Juan Island. Lower down the page you will find FAQ’s about kayak tours on San Juan Island.

Killer Whale FAQ’s

Who are the Southern Resident Killer Whales?

The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are a small community of killer whales comprising of 3 Pods that inhabit the North Pacific of the coast of the United States. Southern Resident Killer Whales are fishing eating killer whales that can most commonly be seen along the coast of Washington State and more specifically the western coast of San Juan Island.

What’s the best time of year to see killer whales on San Juan Island?

Killer Whales can be seen any time of the year in the San Juan Islands. We generally encounter two types of killer whales around the San Juan Islands. The more noted group of killer whales are the Southern Resident Killer Whales that spend a majority of the Spring, Summer, and Fall in the San Juan Island region feeding on King Salmon. The second type of killer whale we encounter are known as Transient Killer Whales (Biggs). Transients travel in smaller groups and feed on porpoise, seals and sea lions in the area. So when is the best time to see killer whales?

  • Spring: During the months of March and April sightings are pretty low. We do have a good chance of encountering Transient Killer Whale but a very low chance of seeing Southern Resident Killer Whales.
  • Summer: The months May, June, July, August, and most of September are great months for whale encounters. To be more specific July and August are statistically the best two months to see killer whales.
  • Fall: As late September near and through October we start to see the Southern Resident Killer Whales less. Most of September we still have a lot of encounters. As we move into October we see a decent drop off for killer whale encounters.

Are Killer Whales Endangered?

Orca Whales as a whole are not endangered through all marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Souther Resident population of Orcas Whales have been given special designation and are listed as endangered. When the Souther Resident Orca, the most commonly seen Orcas around the San Juan’s, were listed critical areas were designated or their recovery. The goal is to project areas the animals spend most of their time. Below is the NOAA Map of Listed Critical Habitat

Endangered Killer Whales

What are the current threats to Southern Resident Killer Whales?

When the Southern Residents were listed as endangered in Canada in 2001 and in the United States in 2005, recovery plans were drafted. These recovery plans listed four main threats to the survival of Southern Resident Killer Whales. 

1. Reduced quantity and quality of prey (Chinook/King/Spring salmon)

2. High environmental levels of persistent biochemicals, such as PCB’s and flame retardants, that have known harmful effects on marine mammals (eg. immune system repression and reproductive system dysfunction)

3. Sound and disturbance from vessel traffic and shipping

4. Potential oil spills

How close can we get to killer whales?

There are many laws, guidelines and regulations we follow while Orca Whales are in the area. All have been put in place to help protect the Southern Resident Killer Whale population from potential disturbances. All guide for Discovery Sea Kayaks complete and annual training through the local Whale Museum in order to stay current with new regulations and laws. Discovery Sea Kayaks is also a member of the San Juan Island Kayak Association where all member has agreed to the best practices for kayaker around killer whales. In Washington State, we are not to pursue or approach killer whales within 200 yards. Though this distance may sound far we do have close encounters while kayaking close to the shore.

Kayak Tour FAQ’s

Do I need to have a reservation?

We recommend reserving your San Juan Island kayak tour in advance to secure your space. Though we are usually able to accommodate walk-in’s, sometimes we are pre-booked.

Will I get the date I want if I book online?

It is very rare that we will not be able to get you on the water for your specified date. We are able to place 99% of bookings for the requested dating. If for any reason the requested dates are not available, you will be contacted immediately.

Do I need to be an experienced kayaker?

The short answer is NO. We take guests kayak from all levels from no experience to expert. For half day, full day and sunset tours you just need to be of average physical condition to enjoy your kayak tour. If you are planning on going on a multi-day kayak tour sometimes it is best to be a bit more prepared for the longer days in the kayak. Though we break up the day with stops along the way, we simply paddle more miles that the day tours.

Discovery guides are very good at what they do. Part of that is teaching you the basics to be proficient while on the water kayaking. Their knowledge will help set the kayak up in the best combination for the most efficient travel. Listen to their instruction and follow their lead on the water and you will be happy you had a Discovery Sea Kayak guide along.

Will I get wet?

Every day is different and we do our best to keep dry. We provide each guest with a waterproof jacket and pair of pants. We recommend wearing shoes you can get wet. We launch from a small beach and depending on the day’s tide, you may have to get your feet wet. That said, Kayaking is a water sport and at times getting wet is unavoidable.

What about the weather?

We don’t go out if the weather is stormy or if the seas are rough. We DO go out in the rain.

Do other companies have better chances to see whales?

It is very rare for one company kayaking the west side to see whales and the other companies not see them. Here is what you need to know and ask your prospective outfitter. First, is the tour route along the west side of  San Juan Island and specifically does it launch from San Juan County Park. This is the launch location for many commercial kayak outfitters and best launching point to access the waters where killer whales are most frequently seen.

You may see outfitters claiming to have more success seeing whales than other companies. This is a hard one to prove but given we are mostly all in the same area and departing at the same time of day it is really unlikely that one company has more encounters than the next. Even if some outfitters say they are in radio contact with whale watch boats so they know where the whales are. All guides carry VHF radios and monitor channels used by whale watch boats and research vessels. It far from a secret where the whales are if they are in the area.

What if we do not see whales on the kayak tour?

It is true that we do not see whales all the time. When we don’t have reports of whales in the area we still operate the tours as usual. The trips are designed so that you have plenty of beautiful scenery and the opportunity to see other wildlife.

Why don’t you provide lunch on the full day kayak tour?

Over the years we have listened to our guests and their experiences on what they are looking for when reserving a full day kayak adventure. One of the concerns was if a lunch is provided and believe it or not they were more interested in being able to bring their own lunch than being a the mercy of what might be considered lunch by the outfitter. They were more concerned that we used high quality equipment such as fiberglass kayaks than less comfortable plastic kayaks.

Local food carries a bit more expensive price tag than food on the main land. One might wonder how an outfitter might be able to offer low priced tours and offer a suitable lunch. So we choose to focus on quality equipment and quality experiences.  Let you bring along the food that makes you happy and enjoy the kayaking experience that we offer paddling the beautiful San Juan islands.

Do you provide single or two person kayaks?

All of our tours use two person kayak for guest. Your guide is most often in a single kayak unless the tour has an odd number of guest. We use two-person kayaks for many reasons. Two-person kayaks are easy to use kayaks for various skill levels. Having all guest in the same style kayaks improves travel dynamics. Two person kayaks offer more stability and comfort for those less used to being in a kayak for a day. On multi-day tour, two person kayaks provide the storage capacity needed to carry all necessary equipment and food.

Will I be stuck in a large group?

NO. We strongly feel the best way to provide you the service you are seeking is to limit the size of our tours. The maximum size group that we take out for all tours except custom tours, is 8 guest.  8 guest equals 4 tandem kayaks which are a very small and nonintrusive group size. Traveling in small groups allows the pace to better suit the group’s needs. Guides can spend more time individually with guest and take you into areas a large group simply will not fit. You should never have a hard time hearing what your guide has to say when rafted in kelp beds enjoying all the intertidal life. Safety is another reason we like to travel in small groups. With 1 guide along to tend to 8 guests, it is much easier to manage any safety issue if any arise.

Can I book a tour for more than 8 guests?

YES. As a custom group, you can arrange to have a group of your own with 8 guest or more. We add more guides to the tour as the number increase to ensure safety and your enjoyment.

Should I Tip my Guide?

Guide are always very appreciative of any gratuities you leave. The general tip is 10% of the total for your kayak tour. Some guest leaves more depending on their experience. You can tip your guide directly or leave a gratuity for them at the shop.

What is the minimum age for kayak tours?

Twelve (12) years old is the minimum age that we take on our west side half day, full day or sunset kayak tours. The same is for our multi-day kayak tours. Given the exposure of the area we kayak and the cold water environment, we feel the west side of San Juan is not suitable for paddlers under twelve. If you have younger paddlers please feel free to give us a call as we can help find the best outfitter in our area that can provide a safe and fun tour for your younger group.

What should I wear?

Generally, we recommend that you stay away from cotton clothing. Once cotton is wet it will not keep you warm and it does not dry out quickly. Think as if you are going out for a day hike. Quick dry, polypro and wool are the best choices for being on the water.

Do you provide any extra gear?

YES. Discovery Sea Kayaks in known for providing extra gear. In fact, if other companies are offering gear, they are reaching for the bar we set.

Half Day, Full Day and Sunset Tours: Beside the necessary paddle equipment. Each person will be provided a dry bag for the day.

Multi-Day Explorer Tour: This tour is set up with all provisions besides your personal clothing. Please check out the Explorer page for details

Guide Rental Multi Day Kayak Tour:  This is set up for you to provide your own gear.  Please check out the Custom Kayak Tour page