Whale Watching on Orcas Island

It would be easy to assume that Orcas Island got its name from the Orca Whales swimming in the surrounding Salish Sea. That would be incorrect, however, as Orcas was named by Spanish explorers to honor the viceroy of Mexico in the late 18th century. It is actually a shortened form of Horcasitas, and has nothing to do with marine life. So much for assumptions.

An Orca Whale jumping around the San Juan Islands

An Orca Whale jumping around the San Juan Islands

But Orcas Island IS a great place to go whale watching! Orca (or killer) whales live in these waters year-round with the most sightings between May and October, when the salmon runs are strongest. This region is one of the best places in the world to see these magnificent animals in the wild.

Of course, we happened to be on Orcas Island in January and February.

Sailing around the San Juan Islands

We really wanted to get out on the water. Everyone we know who has visited this part of the world made a concerted effort to let us know we would LOVE this area even more from the deck of a boat.

Deer Harbor, Orcas Island

Deer Harbor, Orcas Island

Betsy aboard the Squito

Betsy aboard the Squito

In considering this rare opportunity for us to go whale watching, I was somewhat concerned about the environmental impact of people and boats near these wonderful mammals. It’s my understanding that whale watching can have an impact on the natural behavior of the whales and I want to be mindful of that. Boats can also collide with them, risking both passengers and whales.

So, I wanted to go whale watching to 1) see whales and 2) get out on the water. But I was concerned that a) we might not see any whales and b) what I wanted to do might not be good for the animals we wanted to see.

Finding Deer Harbor Charters

Harbor seals basking in the sun

Harbor seals basking in the sun

I did some research and found several whale watching companies on Orcas Island. I learned that the family run company, Deer Harbor Charters, makes a concerted effort to respect the environment and be sensitive to all wildlife. I decided to shoot them an email and ask about the likelihood of seeing whales at this time of year.

Because our business is very focused on customer service, I am deeply in tune with others who sincerely care about their guests. I would say that describes Deer Harbor Charters to a tee. I received an email back from Nate addressing all my questions. He made no empty promises. He said the chance of seeing whales at this time of year is 50/50, but there was “a very good chance of seeing other unique, fun and interesting wildlife.” That sounded pretty good to me.

Captain Nate

Captain Nate

Naturalist Trey

Naturalist Trey

I got to correspond with Nate multiple times before we actually set foot on the boat. We were first scheduled for our outing on Valentine’s Day. On February 14, we were literally snowed in at the top of Buck Mountain with no running water and no way to drive down the hill. Nate let me know several days prior that they might have to cancel because of the weather, and that was the case – but we couldn’t have gotten there anyway because our car was encased in snow.

The next weekend we tried again. Nate let us know early that there was a possibility they would have to reschedule because of high winds. The winds ended up not being a problem, but it was cold and nasty and we decided we’d like to wait if possible. Nate was amazingly understanding, said it was no trouble, and bumped us forward yet another week. This is an advantage of staying in one place for an extended amount of time. 

Our Whale Watching Day

Turtleback Mountain, Orcas Island from the water

Turtleback Mountain, Orcas Island from the water

The day we went out on the water was a glorious day! It was a bit chilly, as it was February, but they clearly told us how to dress and provided blankets in case we got cold – perfect!

We arrived early as we like to do and met Trey, our naturalist. Trey was awesome! Just like everyone else on Orcas, both Nate and Trey were as nice as they could possibly be. Nate turned out to be the captain of our boat, and Trey told us all about what we were seeing. They were both very professional, while really making our time together comfortable, fun, and educational! Trey was charming with his bad jokes and quirky sense of humor. He used this to his advantage to engage his guests while sharing his knowledge about the wildlife.

We boarded our boat, named SQUITO, and Trey went through our safety protocol, including what we needed to know to keep us safe during this crazy pandemic. Their system was extremely COVID friendly. The boat can accommodate over 30 passengers but we were only 10. We all wore masks and were able to stand 6 feet apart nearly all the time.

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These two guys clearly love what they do, and know the waterways and the ins and outs of every bay, like the back of their hands. I grew up on the lake in Canada where we go in the summertime, and I know the history of most families, stories about each cottage, and how to negotiate every rock and shallow place. These guys were able to do the same here in the Salish Sea – which reminds me of our lake, but it is so much more vast. Everything is bigger – grander – more. Their knowledge of this water was born through years of traversing these waters. They clearly have a love for where they are and what they do that is totally infectious.

We saw so much amazing wildlife in our 3 hours on the water! We saw: “Sea Bears” (what I would call Sea Lions), Bald Eagles (some fighting for territory), Harbor Seals, Harlequin ducks, and porpoises. We also some fascinating non-native sheep and exotic deer on Spieden Island, which is privately owned.

And we DID see whales! OK, they were really far away, near the coast of South Pender Island, which is in British Columbia. We couldn’t get close because the Canadian border patrol was making absolutely sure that no US boats crossed the line. But we saw the spouts of Orcas in the distance and followed them as they moved along the shoreline. It was fantastic.

We are so glad we got to do this. Everyone was right, it is an incredible experience to get out on the water here. We walked away knowing more than we did before we arrived about the area, the wildlife, and the passion of the people who make this their livelihood.

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Trey is a wonderful photographer and before we returned to the dock, he airdropped his favorite pictures from our outing to our phones to help us remember this remarkable day! You can see a few of the photos he shot that day above and check out his Facebook page.

To learn more about the orcas in the San Juan Islands, I invite you to read this very interesting article in The Atlanic

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to share that Deer Harbor Charters generously invited us to join them on this tour in exchange for our fair review and promise to share their info on social media. It did not sway our opinion in any way. They were fantastic! We encourage you to share their info with everyone you know! 

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Betsy Ball – Betsy is co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach (ETC), which crafts custom European vacations for independent travelers and leads small group trips to Europe. She is a passionate and culturally curious traveler who thoroughly enjoys sharing her love for exploring Europe with ETC clients. Prior to founding ETC, Betsy taught International Business at Tarleton State University in Texas (part of the A & M System) where she led study abroad trips to multiple European countries and other worldwide destinations. She retired from teaching two and a half years ago and now travels 9 months of the year in Europe. She has a degree in hotel, restaurant management from Michigan State University and an MBA from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She also holds a Level 3 certification from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.

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One thought on “Whale Watching on Orcas Island

  1. We love the Orcas and San Juan Islands. We were fortunate to have a week to sail throughout this area and up into Canada a few years ago. What caught my eye, was your mention of whale watching. We traveled to Baja, Mexico last year to the gray whale birthing grounds and had an AMAZING time. Even got to touch a couple of them when they came right up beside our boat. If you have not already been to this area, I can highly recommend it for seeing whales and their calves.

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