Whale Watching and the San Juan Islands

I came to learn over those days I spent some time on the water that there is a sound I love. It’s that exhale from a whale as it surfaces to release the old air and take in the new. It’s a powerful burst of air with mist escaping up into the air over the water (and sometimes a small rianbow appearing). To hear that over and over as more whales from the pod surface is a powerful reminder of life, of the amazing creatures blow the surface, and of adaptability.

I finished my intro trip to the Pacific Northwest (as I’m calling it) by the very thing that sparked this visit to begin with: visiting Washington’s San Juan Islands. As a long time whale lover, I’d some time ago heard about the resident orca pods in the area and the high likelihood of seeing whales in the wild and knew I wanted to go there. This was the best way to wrap up my trip.

I reserved two days to go out on the water for whale watching tours, hoping that if I didn’t see any on one tour, I at least had the second. And I lucked out. I saw whales on both days (though spent more time with them on the first – such an amazing experience!).

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Just waiting at the ferry terminal to get to the islands was an experience. As I waited in my car, a bald eagle swooped up from the water with lunch in its talons and perched on a pole a little bit in the distance. Now, not knowing how many bald eagles I’d see over the next few days, my mouth certainly dropped open at seeing a bald eagle in the wild. And wow. How amazing. Maybe a part of that is that it is a symbol of our country, so to see one free and in the wild was an experience. I would come to see a whole tree of them in about two days! But that didn’t diminish the vision, just took my awe to a whole new level.

I saw seals and sea lions lounging on rocks, another type of eagle – or maybe a hawk – hunting for food, glimpses of harbor porpoises, and of course, those beautiful orcas. I didn’t see any humpbacks, which I think means I’ll just have to come back and try again. And coming from North Texas, I just loved being around so much water. Out on it, eating lunch overlooking the harbor, or a late afternoon walk around the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, a place also known as Whale Watch Park for being one of the best places – in the world! – to see whales from land.

I admit I had high expectations before this trip. And it is a magical feeling when a place or an experience lives up to that. The environment around here was gorgeous, with green tree-lined islands everywhere you looked and the daring paths the killer whales made close to shore (I had no idea they came that close!). So it was things like that, just listening to the naturalist on our boats, that I also enjoyed. I learned more about the animals I was seeing and what the residents and the local governments were doing to protect these beings with things like regulations around speed and noise reduction, what distance to maintain from whale pods and the whale warning flag to alert others that whales are in the area.

I have to say that while I have loved whales for as long as I can remember, this trip really reinspired that love. I’m looking forward to learning more through books and organizations online, diving into self-study like I did such a long time ago. And I’m also looking forward to future trips to enjoy state and national parks and see how I might responsibly see more wildlife.


Patricia returned to Texas after spending several years on both coasts. She's a writer, amateur photographer and traveler.

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