Orca Whale Kayaking Tour On San Juan Island

Photo by Audrey Kirchner
Photo by Audrey Kirchner

Adventure Tourism: Whale Watching Kayak Tour on San Juan Island

San Juan Island is one of my favorite places on earth. I have been so blessed that every time we've gone to the island, we have been privileged to see my favorite of all wildlife - the magnificent Orca whales. To see them in their natural environment is breathtaking. 

That was the main reason for me signing up for a whale watching kayak tour on one extended visit to San Juan Island.

Adventure tourism doesn't get any better than whale watching kayak tours.  It's a great way to spend time on your vacation. 

In my humble opinion, it doesn't get much better than the tours on San Juan Island.

Come with me on my personal adventure on the high seas and although my experience is in my typical activity-impaired fashion, let me be clear about the incredible adventure of these tours and the beauty for all to see on San Juan Island.

I have posted pictures as well of the Sea Quest Expeditions tour group.  I'm not sure what company we went through when we had our adventure years ago. However, these San Juan Islands Kayak tours are selected as a top 100 adventure!

Kayaking Whale Watching Tour San Juan Island

As I mentioned, San Juan Island is one of my favorite places in all the world. We have been there countless times and have been fortunate to see the Orca whales in their natural habitat every single time. However, our middle son is legally blind and in my endeavors to always bring everything he can’t see to him, I had one of my famous ‘brilliant’ ideas.

We were going on a camping trip as a family to San Juan Island this particular summer and I had this dynamite idea that just couldn’t miss. We would go on a whale-watching tour by kayak and see if we could see the Orcas but this time really, truly up close and personal. So far I had failed at getting him to see them on a whale-watching boat tour, so I truly needed to see if I could get this right – or so I thought.

I should point out at this point that I had never kayaked up to this point in my life. I asked Bob about it and he said it was just like canoeing or row-boating so I figured how hard could it be? I did some investigating and began making calls to all the places that did kayak tours on San Juan Island and once I’d figured out when and where, it seemed logical to book the tour.

This of course was way before the Internet and getting a birdseye view of something before you jump in with both feet.

While I was talking to the tour company on the phone, I asked a lot of questions because I wanted to find out first of all if it was safe to do – even though Bob and I and our friend were certainly qualified as adults – but my kids were high school age. I just needed to cover all the bases and make sure I wasn’t leading them into a dangerous situation. Little did I realize it was myself I was leading.

The fellow on the phone patiently answered all my questions while giving me a lot of great information – how beautiful it was kayaking in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, how many people had seen whales, how great it was to be so up close and personal. I asked repeatedly about my arms because I happen to have terrible ‘wear and tear’ syndrome on my arms to the tune of carpal tunnel from my years as a transcriptionist.

I asked several times if I would have any troubles at all rowing or paddling the kayak to which he answered emphatically 'no'. It was something anyone could do. (I should have known that the word 'anyone' precluded yours truly) He also added that the best time to go was the evening cruise because that was when you were most likely to see the whales. I think he saw me coming a mile away.

When I told everyone about the added bonus outing to the camping trip, needless to say, they were ecstatic. I was actually really looking forward to this because I so love the Orca whales and the thought of seeing them so close was just almost too much for me to comprehend. We ended up with 6 of us going – our 3 teenage children, Bob and I and a friend of ours who had come with us on the camping trip.

The day of the trip dawned beautifully enough but by late afternoon, the clouds had moved in and as my luck would have it, it started to drizzle. Consequently, when we arrived at the cove for the tour, we were all bundled in sweatshirts. Somehow the drizzle of the late afternoon (about 5:00 p.m. or so) seemed amplified now that we were going out onto the water.

Our guide of course was young and svelt. Normally, I would look at this as a perk because not only would I be getting a workout and be enjoying Mother Nature, but I’d have eye candy to look at as well. (Hey – I’m old but I’m not dead)

I quickly changed my opinion though and decided this was not going to be a trip that I’d be having a lot of time for ogling on. Mr. Buff quickly set about getting us paired up and on this pairing, I have to wonder in retrospect the phrase “What was I thinking????”

Our middle boy may not be able to see but he is strong as the proverbial ox. Our oldest boy was a soccer star and in the prime shape of his life. Our daughter was a track star and again, in superb shape. Our friend is older than Bob and has terrible arthritis in his hands so no help there; and then there's Bob and I left.

As it turns out, our daughter Kate paired up with our oldest son, Jon while Patrick got our friend Paul who took the back seat and kindly gave Pat the front. (We later learned that it was because he didn’t want Pat to know that he wasn’t paddling – however, I have a feeling that Pat knew all along – but no worries there).

So who does that leave as the fearsome twosome – none other than Bob and Audrey. About this time, I’m really starting to get cold and looking out at the bay or cove that we were in, I was beginning to think this was perhaps one of my stupidest ideas yet. The instructor had assured me up one side and down the other that people of ALL ages and capabilities could do this but still that voice of ‘this is insane’ niggled at me.

Finally realizing that I was the only person not in the kayak, I gave in and got in - thankfully without capsizing Bob.

Next came the tutorial on the capsize scenario (I have to say that this kind of role playing does not enhance my eagerness to participate). He basically told us to spin around after we capsized and try to not drown under the kayak – very reassuring – especially since I figured we had about 20 minutes tops before we died of exposure in the water off San Juan Island.

Wow – with all that instruction, I could have kayaked around the world! At this point, he told us the plan – we would go out of the bay (darn) and into the Strait but we needed to stay far enough away from the shore to avoid sharp rocks (again, I’m thrilled). We would go north along the west side of the island to a certain point and then head back.

What he didn’t mention was that going up we were going against the current. When we got out of the cove and into the open water, it was like shoveling snow – it was that heavy to get the oars up and out of the water and then rotate my wrist.

I had chosen to sit in the back of the kayak simply because I didn’t want Bob to be sitting behind me making cracks. (I prefer to be the cracker) So off we went lickity split (more like lickity stupid) as we discovered a very important moment in our married life that day. We do not row well together. Who knew?

Much as sometimes when we're dancing, we cannot quite synchronize our steps because I think I'm trying to match the beat and lead, in this case, sort of the same thing happened. At least I think that’s it. Instead of going straight as the other people in our party were doing, we were kayaking sideways.

As I said, we had been told that we were going to this magical turnaround point (where I might add we would get to partake of a really cool snack – live seaweed - Oh be still my heart!) It's really not that bad - see the video below.

As I watched my children pull away from us along with Mr. Buff, all easily cutting through the water like they’d been kayaking their entire lives…..Bob and I began our sideways trek up the west side of the island. I believe our ETA was at least 15-30 minutes later than my kids'. They had eaten their fill of seaweed before we even got into port.


You Can Hear The Orcas Breathe

My pictures from shore next day

Kayaking is Hard Work!

The trip was not all fun and games either. Bob was constantly turning around in the kayak (as much as possible anyway) and asking me what the heck I was doing back there.

“Oh you know – doing my nails – the usual. What do you THINK I’m doing back here?”

I actually was soaked to the skin before we left the cove because I was having a devil of a time with the oars. Every time I put the oar thing into the water and brought it through the water, when I lifted it, all the water ran down the paddle/oar into my sweatshirt and by about 10 times of that, I was soaked. The drizzle now felt like icicles hitting my face, and I seriously was trying not to start crying. My wrists were killing me – some carpal tunnel tour this was!!

As well, to put this into perspective, I suddenly became very aware that we were in a HUGE body of water way far away from the shore – and it was drizzling - and it was getting dark!! All hints of bravery long gone, I started to whine. "Why were we going crooked? When are we going to catch up with them? Why don’t you know how to paddle this thing?"

The only thing I couldn’t accuse him of was not stopping and asking for directions. We could see the rats ahead of us parked at their buffet of seaweed while we tried valiantly to get there.

Just before we approached the lunch counter, out of the depths of the sea rose a great creature. A very huge head emerged right beside our little ship in that massive sea. I did what anyone else who had wanted a real wildlife experience would do – I screamed – at the top of my bloody lungs.

I screamed so loud that Bob almost jumped out of the kayak. I honest to God thought we were going to die right then and wondered how someone would find me at the bottom of the Strait. Oh yeah, I had a life jacket on so I’d probably float out to the Pacific where I’d be pecked to death by seagulls.

Bob jerks around in the kayak of course almost capsizing us to scream at me "What are you screaming for?” and all I could do was point. I’m sure he was so excited that he could barely contain himself when he followed the line to where I was pointing – but alas it wasn’t a whale but a mere seal.

In my defense, when you are on the SAME LEVEL pretty much (since your body is under water in the kayak – another thing I wasn’t thrilled to learn) it looked really scary. I can’t help it if I thought it was some sea monster or something. He was practically looking me in the eye!

So after the lecture on how I should really stop screaming because I’m giving him a heart attack (what about mine?), and my kids howling hysterically as they watched their special ed parents try to ‘park’ the kayak to get their meager bites of fresh seaweed, before I even had a chance to recover, we were headed back. What about the recovery phase?

I have to say though that I tried really, really hard to pick up the pace – I wanted out of that blasted kayak so bad I could taste it. I no longer cared about the whales of San Juan Island. I no longer even cared about having Patrick see them up close and personal. I vowed to buy him a video and be done with this madness forever! Just get me outta here!!!

By now it is full on darkness – it is raining in earnest and I am soaked to the skin. My arms are aching and I can barely turn my wrist over. I finally quit paddling at all and pretended by making clunking sounds on the side of the kayak sometimes if Bob acted like he was suspicious. Hey – if Patrick could row Paul all the way up and back, I figured Bob could do it too, right?

I’m beginning to think about crying pretty soon because I have this feeling that we are going to be out on the sea forever and we are never going to get back in. I was actually praying that no whales did come up because I have no doubt in my mind that I would have had a bloody heart attack right there. At least though, I’d have been warm after the heart attack!

Finally the cove comes into view and tears of joy and relief start to flow. All I can think of is getting back to the campsite and going to take a $5 shower. I planned on staying in there for a very long time. I wanted out of the blasted kayak and I wanted out now.

We maneuvered the boat up to the shore and Mr. Buff jumped out like he’d not done anything strenuous of course and pulled in his kayak. I managed to throw myself out of mine onto the shore and started to sprint for the van when I heard him yell after me – ‘Hey – where are you going? You have to help carry the kayaks up – you can’t leave until I’ve loaded them all.’

Again – I paid for this outing from hell? Slowly I turned and stomped back to the kayak, glaring at Bob the entire time. Why? If we didn't have kids, would be probably be doing this? And I guess just because! I was wet and cranky and I needed a hot shower not to mention probably a hot toddy!

We hoisted up the cursed kayak and muscled the stupid thing up the trail to where his kayak trailer waited and I set my end down with a thunk.

Once in the car, I turned up the heat to full blast and shivered myself to death on the way back to the campsite 30 minutes away.

All the way back though I have to say everyone was recounting what a great trip it was and how awesome it was being out on the sea and paddling against the current. Too bad I didn’t see this as a highlight of the day but rather looked at the docking as the high point of my day.

Questions Answered

Whale Watching Kayak Tour on San Juan Island

I have to say it was a great experience once it was OVER in my case. I think I’d recommend that anyone thinking about this activity though do the smart thing and go during the day.

I’d also recommend being a silent nonparticipating passenger if you have any kind of arm or upper body issues - hook up with a good rower.

I also recommend reviewing techniques on what to do in a kayak such as safety precautions, rowing techniques, etc. Visit kayakjournaling.com as a great website for tips on kayaking.

No matter what the folks on the tour tell you, this is a high risk activity and it is not for the weak-hearted. However, I think if I'd known more about what to expect, how to dress, and especially how to actually kayak appropriately, I would have done much better.

Also my advice – look out for seals. You can't imagine how big their heads look if you are right next to them and on the same level – honestly! Anyone would have been scared!

If you are brave, I recommend the whale watching kayak tour. If you are a sissy like this old lady, I recommend going just south of Lime Kiln Point State Park and parking yourself on the wonderful expanse of rocks. Bring binoculars, a blanket or two, some food and just wait.

Every time I've gone to that place, I've seen the whales. As a matter of fact, after our whale watching kayak tour, we went to that spot several times over that weekend and saw the Orcas every time.

The problem for my family is getting me away from the spot because I will insist every time on staying there in case another pod happens by.

My whale pictures, though far away were all taken by me with a regular Nikon 35 mm camera pointed at the spots where I guessed they might emerge after they went under. I then clicked without looking the moment that they came up. I got lucky a few times.

Again, this was with regular film and way before digital cameras and my Flip video. (Thinking about the possibilities makes me think maybe I could do this tour again!)

All in all, you won't find a more beautiful spot for a vacation than San Juan Island and you won't find a more incredible moment in your life than spotting an Orca whale.

Even better, if you sit back and just listen, you can hear them breathe. It echoes in the stillness of the Strait and in that magical sound moment, you might think you have just glimpsed - or heard - a bit of heaven.

See the videos below for a real live up close and personal kayak whale watching tour of San Juan Island - incredible!

The photos above were taken by me as stated.

The photos below are from Sea Quest Expeditions. I obtained written permission from Martine Springer, Expedition Director to use for this hub.

These photos illustrate what it is possible to see on their wonderful whale watching kayak tours, and all kidding aside, it was a great adventure.

For more information, visit their website and book a tour for your next vacation adventure!

Photos courtesy Sea Quest Expeditions (via written permission)

What you can see
What you can see
Cliff fog off San Juan Island
Cliff fog off San Juan Island
Pod passing by
Pod passing by
Eagles abound for salmon
Eagles abound for salmon

Reasons to Sign Up for a Kayaking Tour


Sea Quest Expeditions is a great way to kayak in the San Juan islands - here are some of the reasons why they are so popular:

  • San Juan islands is a great killer whale zone and where most whale sightings occur in Washington and the Northwest although there are some unusual rare occurrences!
  • They are the lowest priced kayak tour in the Seattle area
  • Even if you don't see the whales, you will see magnificent views of sea cliffs & lighthouses on the western side of the San Juan islands
  • You will see all different types of wildlife and bounty of the sea such as harbor seals, otters and bald eagles
  • This is the best route for kayaking with orca whales in the US with 85+ resident killer whales
  • There is abundant camping sites and hotels, resorts, private homes, and cabins to rent on the smaller, isolated islands and on San Juan Island - it is only a ferry trip away
  • They have conducted kayak tours in the San Juan Islands since 1989 and have a perfect safety record, the best trained guides, and the newest kayaks & paddling equipment

If I decide I want to do this again (and I'm seriously thinking about it now), I'm signing up with these folks!

show route and directions
A markerFriday Harbor San Juan Island -
Friday Harbor, WA, USA
[get directions]

Friday Harbor Ferry Stop - How you arrive on San Juan Island

B markerLime Kiln Point San Juan Island -
Lime Kiln Point State Park, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
[get directions]

State Park where you can see the whale pods passing by

C markerSeattle Washington -
Seattle, WA, USA
[get directions]

Downtown Seattle for point of reference

Kaying and Kelp Lunch

It Really Can Happen

More by this Author


Comments 19 comments

akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon Author

Prasetio, I'm with you - the only place I'm going kayaking anymore is probably on the river and in my OWN kayak. I'm still thinking about a tour someday again with the whales but I'm just not sure my heart could take it -so may just stick to the movies and be satisfied - and watch them from the shore if I go again! Thanks so much for the kind vote up!


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

I never try kayak before. But it would be something great in my life if I could try kayak. But I have to think twice to kayak among the killer whales. I want to try this in the beautiful river surrounded by the beautiful forest. I love all the pictures and video. Thanks for share with us. Vote up again...

Prasetio


akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon Author

Oh BJ - You are the dearest thing...and yes I can bake muffins and all that jazz but I guess I didn't realize before I joined HP how much I also loved writing....and playing the accordion but dang, I just can't get the gigs! It must be because I'm too old and I give out too quickly with my spaghetti arms!

You are the sweetest, BJ - thanks for all the encouragement always.


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

I know you bake muffins, ak, and I know you're a fabulous cook (you've said so), but I don't believe for a minute that's what you do best.

What you do best is ... (drum roll here)... having the world's funniest caper-filled adventures and then writing about them here at HP in the world's funniest way. You keep 'em coming and we'll keep laughing - not at you, my dear - but with you! :)


akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon Author

BJ - I'm so glad you've seen them too and you know what I'm talking about! I go speechless and then I start to cry- an event my family never ceases to wonder at, especially the speechless! They literally have to drag me to the car when we go to San Juan Island and I've always wanted to rent a house that overlooked the Strait so I could sit up 24 hours a day and just watch them go by though it would be so high up it would probably be rather pointless without a super scope! But that would be my 'best vacation ever' - just to sit in the window and watch for my pals.

Or better yet, camp out on the rocks with my dogs and just sit there and have folks bring me food and water!

You are right about my escapades though - on thinking about it, I have to say to myself 'what was I thinking?' I truly was very scared and it just seemed to be the longest trip in the world before we got back to safety. I don't know why but the older we get I guess the more vulnerable we realize we are. Being out in a huge body of water like that in something as pathetic as a kayak just all of a sudden hit me as not the best plan for one old lady. I think next time I'll do what I do best - stay at home and bake muffins! And keep Griffin from eating them off the counter!


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

You've done it again, audrea, captivated me from the first "ogling Mr. Buff" through the sighting of the sea monster (large-headed seal) and ending with the return to safety as "high point of the day."

I can't read enough about your various adventures - just pray you survive them all without grievous injury. The videos are awesome.

I know the thrill of seeing orcas in person - I have had the privilege of watching them many times on Alaska cruises, so can share the almost mystical emotion one feels when viewing them up close and personal. Here's to many more funny but safe adventures - without kayaks.


akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon Author

Yes HH that's what I found - too big of an ocean for such a little tiny boat. If a whale had come up - poof - there would go Audrey in a bit of a heart attack!


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Thank you, Audrey, for a wonderful hub. Why can't we led you go anywhere? Mind you, as fascinating it is but it must be scary to be out on the ocean in a little Kayak. I don't I would be brave enough. It is alright for the ones who are used to it.


akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon Author

Thanks, Carolina for stopping by - and yep - it is hard work - but it's all good. Out in the big ocean though it was frightening work!


carolina muscle profile image

carolina muscle 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

hahaha.. I love that line _ kayaking is hard work!! YEP!


akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon Author

Oh Nellie - that is too much about the swindle! And we all know how I get into these fixes - by being me! Thanks for the read.....

Pamela - I'm with you - I think about it but then I'm so afraid if I try it again I just may have 'the big one' if one of them comes up beside me - if the seal did that to me, gosh knows what the real thing would do!


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States

Audry, That story is hysterical. Real life is always better than fiction. While it looks absolutely gorgeous I think I would watch from the shore. Very funny, Rated up!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

Hi, Audrey, this is amazing, I always wanted to go see them, recently we went down to the coast to Torquay, and we went out on a whale searching boat. Whales my a...! what a con, we found out later that they were only seen about twice a year! and the rest of the year the trips were centred on making money by taking tourists out! so I am so jealous! and one question, why do you always get yourself into these predicaments? ha ha ha ha cheers nell


akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon Author

Thanks, Simone - It seems quite a few things that I do on land or on water turn into adventures but that's okay - keeps ya thinkin' it's good to be alive!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

Hehee- what a great adventure! I totally get what you mean about these being great experiences once they're OVER though!


akirchner profile image

akirchner 6 years ago from Central Oregon Author

Steph - I think that's the one thing I miss about Washington - 'my' Orcas. Gosh I so loved to go there and just sit and listen and watch. It was a fantastic experience of my life and am just so lucky to have seen them so many times.

Thanks Micky for pedaling by - thanks for great comment.

Alekhouse - I know - I can't imagine how I was so fortunate to have seen so much. It was truly a frightening experience for me but then again, I would do it all over again!


alekhouse profile image

alekhouse 6 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

Whoa....always wanted to go whale watching. Incredible story, videos, and pictures. I am so jealous. Thanks.


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Ah! Incredible! You put so much beauty in one spot for us! Fantastic!


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

I love the San Juan Islands - been to Orcas many times and into Friday Harbor too. But, we've never been whale watching! My kids would love this. I'm inspired to plan a trip now. Great job as always!

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