San Juan Island Kayaking FAQs

Have questions about San Juan Island, Sea Kayaking and Killer Whales? Here are a few FAQs about killer whales and kayak tours in the San Juan Islands.

Killer Whale FAQ's

Q: Who are the Southern Resident Killer Whales?

The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are a small community of killer whales comprised of 3 Pods that inhabit the northern Pacific of the coast of the United States. Southern Resident Killer Whales are fish-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.

Q: 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. The Southern Resident Killer Whales spend a majority of the spring, summer, and fall in the San Juan Island region feeding on King Salmon. 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 Whales 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: Thru most of September we still have a lot of encounters, but do start to see the whales less often. As we move into October we see a drop off in killer whale encounters.
Q: Are Killer Whales Endangered?

Orca Whales as a whole are not endangered although all marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Souther Resident population of Orca Whales have been given special designation and listed as endangered. This listing allowed the waters where they spend most of their time to be protected as critical habitat.

Q: 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, which 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

Q: 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 guides 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 whose members have agreed to the best practices for kayaking 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

Q: Price Comparing Kayak Tour Companies?

With many options to choose from selecting your San Juan Island Kayak Tour Outfitter can be a bit difficult. Most of us operate tours along the same routes and launch from the same beaches, adding to the confusion.

So what’s the deal with Discovery?

Price: This is an important topic when choosing your kayak tour operator. Discovery is typically not the cheapest in town but there are really good reasons we have a slightly higher price.

  • Small Groups: We believe small groups offer the best experience. Most of the companies charging low rates make up the difference in cost by running a large number of guests with minimal staff.  This is not our idea of a quality experience. We hold a high standard in providing everyone a top-notch kayak adventure.
  • No Added Fees: Some companies have a confusing pricing matrix that needs investigating the fine print. In the fine print, you will find added fees for certain days of the week, added launch fee of up to $10 per person, and sadly some add a transportation fee. Many time when all the fees are calculated the cost of the tour is well above the cost of our Kayak Tours. Our kayak Tours are priced so you see the actual price of the tours minus Wa State Tax which you will see calculated in your shopping cart.
  • Open Transparency: If you call the office and ask about our kayak tour or status of the whales you will always get an honest answer. Even if those answers are not what you might want to hear about the location of the killer whales. It is easy for companies to overmarket the potential for whale encounters from kayaks. But the reality is if the whales are in the area all companies will see the whales. Ridiculous claims of seeing whales more than another company should be a RED FLAG.
  • Quality Equipment: We strive to have the best kayak equipment available. We use fiberglass kayaks for all of our kayak tours and quality paddles made right here in Wa State. Not all days are sunshine on San Juan Island so we make sure that every guest is provided a waterproof jacket and pants for all of our kayak tours. All of our single day kayaking adventures include dry bags, all needed paddle equipment, and waterproof outerwear.  All of our multi-day kayak adventures included everything you need. From meals, kayaking equipment, camping equipment, down to the pillow you will sleep on at night.
  • Training: When it comes to skills and training it is hard to find an outfitter more dedicated to the art of sea kayaking and leadership. We train exhaustively every year. Our in-house training program is no cake walk. Long days of training on the sea to hone skills needed to be a professional sea kayak guide. Evenings are spent in a classroom setting learning all the details of the islands wildlife, history, and geology. Our training is fully immersed in what it really takes to become a leader on and off the water.

We are one of the few companies that have a brick and mortar location in downtown Friday Harbor. This is great for you as there is a physical place to check-in and ask questions about the kayak tours. Many companies just have an area along the side of the road downtown they will pick you up. This always sounds good, but we typically end up assisting those looking where to meet other companies meeting locations and answering questions they have.

We hope this helps clear some of the confusion selecting a kayak outfitter for your kayak adventure on San Juan Island. We are happy to answer any additional questions.

Q: Do I need to have a reservation?

We recommend that you reserve your San Juan Island kayak tour in advance to secure your space. Though we are usually able to accommodate walk-ins, our trips do fill up, especially in the summer months.

Q: 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.

Q: Do I need to be an experienced kayaker?

The short answer is NO. We take guests of 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 physically 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, including teaching you the basics to be proficient while on the water kayaking. Listen to their instruction and follow their lead on the water and you will be happy you had a Discovery Sea Kayak guide along.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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. The best question to ask your perspective outfitter is if the tour route is 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 the 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.

Q: 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.

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

Over the years, we have listened to our guests about what they are looking for when reserving a full day kayak adventure. The overall sentiment has been that guests are more interested in being able to bring their own lunch than in being at the mercy of what the outfitter might provide. They were more concerned that we used high-quality equipment such as fiberglass kayaks instead of the less comfortable plastic kayaks.

Another factor is that island food carries a bit more of an expensive price tag than food on the mainland, making it hard to offer a suitable lunch and keep our tour prices low. So we choose to focus on quality equipment and quality experiences.  This lets you bring along the food that makes you happy and enjoy paddling the beautiful San Juan Islands.

Q: Do you provide single or two person kayaks?

All of our tours use two person kayaks for guests. Your guide is most often in a single kayak unless the tour has an odd number of guests. We use two-person kayaks for many reasons. Two-person kayaks are easy-to-use kayaks for various skill levels. Having all guests in the same style of kayaks improves travel dynamics. Two-person kayaks offer more stability and comfort for those less used to being in a kayak.

On multi-day tour, two-person kayaks provide the storage capacity needed to carry all necessary equipment and food.

Q: 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 eight guests. Eight guests means four tandem kayaks, which is a very small and a nonintrusive group size. Traveling in a small group allows the pace to better suit the group’s needs. Guides can spend more time individually with guests 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 one guide along to tend to eight guests, it is much easier to manage any safety issue that may arise.

Q: 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 eight guests or more. We add more guides to larger tours to ensure your safety and enjoyment.

Q: Should I tip my guide?

Guides 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: Do you provide any extra gear?

YES. Discovery Sea Kayaks is 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 includes all provisions needed for camping and kayaking, including food. You only need to bring your personal items and clothing.

Guide Rental Multi Day Kayak Tour:  This is set up for you to provide your own gear.

Q: Is safety a priority?

Your safety is our #1 priority. In addition to First Aid and CPR, all prospective guides have to complete a rigorous kayak training program and have an established knowledge base of the local natural history. Our guides are kayakers and outdoors people first, with years of experience on the water and the outdoors.

In addition to an extensive in-house kayak training program, guides are sent to numerous outside sea kayak and kayaking rescue skills courses. This experience gives our guides the highest standards of sea kayaking skills and leadership in the San Juan Islands.