Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands

That’s both our moms (Nancy with binoculars, Deanna wearing a hat) on the Island Explorer 3, a whale watching boat that leaves from Anacortes and travels around the San Juan Islands (yes, where they filmed Free Willy) in hopes of showing you some orcas, gray whales, minke whales, and humpback whales. A lot of whale watching companies wrap up their season in September, but this place goes year-round as the “Big Guys” (humpbacks) show up. They also donate some portion of their proceeds to conservation. We spent almost seven hours on the boat with my parents, Krista’s parents, Levi, my Auntie Lynne, and my brother Jimmy. We don’t have too many shots of the wildlife, but here’s a list of some things we saw:

Levi, Deanna, Duane, keeping track of their species in their naturalist guidebooks.

Harbor Porpoise – so shy! and so cute! we saw a pod of about six or eight of them jumping in unison. It was amazing!
Dall’s Porpoise – also very cute, although hard to see. We love porpoises ! (porpoisi?)
Stellar Sea Lion – this guy was huge! The san juan islands are known as a bachelor pad for sea lions, since they come here to fatten up during their “teenage” years. There were a zillion birds circling him, eating the extra as he stirred up the fish.
California Sea Lion – this guy was posing on a buoy as we came back toward Anacortes. He even waved his little flipper at us. So charming.
Harbor Seal – there were a bunch of these little dudes sunning themselves in a nature preserve we went past. they were just relaxing, laying back, chillin’ on the beach in the 50 degree weather.
Humpback whales ! — this was probably the highlight for me! there were 3 of them, including a 2-year-old juvenile. they were so massively gigantic, it was difficult for me to wrap my mind around it. I mean, they are so so big! as Levi said, “They are MAJESTIC!”
here’s a quick list of birds:
pelagic cormorant
pigeon guillemot
glaucous-winged gull
BALD EAGLE (perhaps eating a cat?)
and we probably saw more birds we weren’t quick enough to identify!
Also, Krista & I saw the Lions Mane Jellyfish & Moon Jellyfish – I love jellyfish so much. They are fascinating and beautiful.

We didn’t see any orcas on the boat, but my Auntie Lynne ran into one later in Friday Harbor.

The boat we were on was big. You could hang out inside, be warm, and see things out the window. here’s some pics of us hanging out inside:

This may be my fave pic of me and my brother, of all time!

Jess, Jimmy, Auntie Lynne warming up indoors

But enough slacking off! We had some work to do! We spent many hours in the blisteringly cold wind, scanning the horizon with binoculars for the wildlife.

Jess & Levi freezing our faces off!

Scanning the horizon for the spouts in the distance. Fortunately, the boat had binoculars for rent, since I came woefully unprepared for the wildlife hunting I needed!

The moment of truth! A spout on the horizon led us toward these three humpbacks. It’s hard to see in the picture, but there IS a spout! The mountains & a lighthouse were a great backdrop for the whales. We got to see them dive down a couple of times. One of the best parts — we had to travel into Canadian waters to see the whales, past Victoria, B.C. This was special to us, since that’s where we got married! It was like revisiting our wedding city.

Levi, near the end of the trip, said, “This was really cool.” He even gave it a thumbs up!

After the whale watching, we got on yet another ferry to Friday Harbor, which is a tiny town on San Juan Island. It’s in the middle, between the American & English camps, and the tiny shops and restaurants are largely older victorian-style buildings. It was precious. We stayed at the Hotel Elements, which is a hybrid lodging project — vintage auto motel redesigned super modern with all the deluxe amenities & an on-site spa. Everyone agreed, THE BEDS WERE SO COMFY! The vintage motel aesthetic was so, so, so cute. I am so glad we stayed there, and I recommend it for any of your Friday Harbor lodging needs. We had a ridiculously delicious dinner at the bowling alley across the street from the hotel – no joke, it’s called Jimmy’s Paradise Cafe. Yes, my dad AND brother bought hats & shirts. I would have gotten one for my cat, too, but they didn’t have his size. The ferry ride was beautiful, too. The Washington State Ferry took us on a quick (1H) trip past several of the islands. Here are a couple shots of us with “boat hair”

My mom & my Auntie Lynne

My dad & I waiting for the ferry.

It was a fantastic weekend, completely full of amazing vistas & awe-inspiring wildlife. We had a great time seeing all manners of new things, and spending quality time with our families, old and new.


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