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Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands
Tucked away in the northwestern corner of Washington state lies a group of islands that is a virtual paradise for the adventurous soul. Home to vast green forests, sparkling clear waters, and the unbridled scenery of the Pacific Northwest lies what is perhaps the best land based location on the planet for observing orca whales. The place is Lime Kiln State Park located on San Juan Island, the namesake of the 172-island chain that occupies this northern most portion of Washington State.
If you’ve never heard of the San Juan Islands, or if you think they must be located in Puerto Rico don’t fret. I suspect that unless you’ve either been there before or live in the Pacific Northwest then you’ve probably never heard of the place.
San Juan Island
San Juan Island is the second largest and the most populous of the San Juan Islands. Its main population center is also the only incorporated town on the island, Friday Harbor.
There is much to do on San Juan Island. You can rent a kayak and explore its coast. You can bring your bike over on the ferry or rent one and explore the island on two wheels. There are numerous hiking trails, a whale museum, a lavender farm and even an alpaca farm to explore.
But what brings most visitors to this island is the chance to see the eighty plus orcas that make their summer home here. And the best spot to see these majestic creatures from land is to head to Lime Kiln State Park, otherwise know as “Whale Watch Park”. June through September is the prime whale-watching season here as the orcas patrol the waters of Haro Strait that separates the west coast of San Juan Island from Vancouver Island.
The Washington State Ferry in Friday Harbor
Washington State Dept of Transportation Ferry Information and Schedules
San Juan Transit Bus
- San Juan Transit - Transportation in the San Juan Islands
San Juan Transit provides transportation from Friday Harbor to all points of interest around San Juan Island. A great way to see the island!
Getting to San Juan Island
Just getting to San Juan Island can be an adventure and is certainly part of the fun. The most common way to get here is to take the scenic ride on a Washington State Ferry from Anacortes. Anacortes is about a 90-minute ride north from Seattle and is the hub for ferry's heading throughout the San Juan Island chain. Visitors can take their cars or bikes onto the ferry if they choose and this eliminates the problem of how to get around once on the island.
There is also a summer passenger only ferry, the Victoria Clipper that provides service from downtown Seattle. To get to Lime Kiln State Park from Friday Harbor it is best if you have a car, bike or moped as the park is located on the far western side of the island approximately nine miles from Friday harbor and the ferry terminal. Another option for getting around the island is the San Juan Transit shuttle bus that can get you pretty much anywhere on the island.
Video taken from Lime Kiln State Park
The Southern Resident Whales are currently considered endangered and as such are protected under the Endangered Species Act. This group is one of only two groups of orcas currently afforded protection under federal law. This status is based on recent declines in their population numbers and to threats that they face in the decline of their primary food source, Chinock salmon. Current theories also point to high toxicity levels in the whales due to their position at the top of the food chain.
About the Whales
Most of the whales around San Juan Island are orcas but there are other species here as well including minke, grey and humpback whales. In addition to the whales it is also possible to see porpoises, seals, seal lions, otters, bald eagles and numerous other seabirds.
The three pods that account for the 80 plus orcas here belong to what is known as the “Southern Resident Whales”. This group of orcas is referred to as "resident" because they spend a significant time period each year in one location, here in the waters of Puget Sound around San Juan Island. The Southern Resident Whales can usually be seen patrolling the waters of Haro Strait and Puget Sound from mid-April through October but the best time to see them is June through September.
Interestingly, very little is known about the winter range and movement of the Southern Resident Whales. The three pods are identified as the J-pod, K-pod and L-pod. The different pods represent groups of whales that share a common maternal ancestor. To meet the whales up close and personal check out their web site.
Lime Kiln State Park
Spending a day at Lime Kiln Sate Park and having an opportunity to see a pod of orcas can be a great experience. The park has trails for hiking, picnic tables, a lighthouse, and usually a naturalist nearby to answer any questions you may have. So bring along that picnic basket, make sure you have your camera, and even bring the dog as long as they remain on a leash.
The lighthouse has a reader board where you can check to see when the whales were last in the area or simply ask the naturalist. They will usually know where the whales are located and what direction they are heading in. When the whales do arrive you will be amazed at how close they come to the shore, it really is a sight to behold. They are so close that you can actually hear them as they surface to breathe through their blowhole.
The park is also a great location for spotting bald eagles so be on the look out and bring your binoculars. Just a short hike south of Lime Kiln Park is a place called Dead Man’s Bay, which has a beautiful little cove with a pebble stone beach and tide pools. This is a great place if your traveling here with kids and exploring the tide pools can be great fun.
As there are no guarantees that the whales will be right where you want them to be while you’re visiting Lime Kiln State park be sure to speak with the naturalist while you’re here to see if the whales are expected. If they are not, perhaps the naturalist can direct you to their current location around the island but during the summer months this is where they spend a good deal of their time so be patient.
The park is a beautiful spot to spend an afternoon be it watching the whales, exploring the tide pools, taking a hike, or simply having a picnic in a beautiful location.
You can always opt for a whale watching boat tour while on San Juan Island if you prefer. While this is certainly an option keep in mind that it will come at a price. For me there is nothing like knowing that the pod of whales is heading toward Lime Kiln Park and experiencing the anticipation and excitement of their arrival.
We've made the trip to Lime Kiln State Park on two occasions. Our routine has been the same; pack a lunch, drive to Anacortes, put the car on the ferry and head to Friday Harbor. We saw the whales on one of our visits and it was the highlight of our trip to Washington State. Hopefully the Whale Gods are smiling on you as you head to the San Juan Islands for a chance to see one of nature’s greatest shows.
San Juan Islands
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Lime Kiln State Park
© 2012 Bill De Giulio