As a 90’s kid, Warner Bros’ “Free Willy” was my introduction to Orcas. I imagined myself as Jesse, fist high in the air screaming “Yeah!” as Willy leapt into the Pacific and swam to freedom. As cheesy as the film may seem now, fictional Willy tells a not-so-fictional story. Many of these animals spend their lives in captivity as ambassadors to their species, teaching people about what Orcas are, why we should care about them, and what we can do to protect them in the wild. Because that is what’s so magical, isn’t it? Seeing them in the wild.
Whale watching is big business in Washington, and for good reason. There is something indescribable about hearing that puff of air in the distance, desperately scanning the water in hopes to catch a fleeting glimpse of one of the giants of the ocean. While there are plenty of fantastic opportunities for guided whale watching tours by sea, Washington also boasts some of the best viewing locations right from shore.
The Whale Trail
The Whale Trail is a series of locations that give a front-row seat to whales, dolphins and other marine mammals from the land. It runs from Canada to southern California and includes over 100 different sites. Many of these locales provide educational facilities, interpretive signs and information regarding what species you may see there. To land a spot on this list, these sites must meet the criteria of being in a publicly accessible location and provide a good chance of seeing marine life – in other words, you’re already ahead of the game. Washington’s portion of the Whale Trail begins right across the Oregon border at Cape Disappointment State Park, runs north hugging the Olympic Peninsula, rounds the bend into Puget Sound and dots the islands of the San Juans.
Whale Watch Park
Speaking of the San Juans, this grouping of islands is home to some of the best viewing of whales in the world. People from all over the globe flock to this little part of the planet to view marine life, and almost everyone has their fingers crossed for an Orca sighting. The poster children for whale watching in this area, and often referred to as Killer Whales, Orcas aren’t actually whales at all. They are the largest member of the dolphin family measuring in at up to 32 feet and weighing in at a whopping 11 tons.
So where can you go if you find yourself on one of these islands to catch a glimpse of that famous black and white dolphin? If the San Juans hold the title for best whale watching, Lime Kiln Point State Park may just be the crown jewel. Officially nicknamed “Whale Watch Park”, this area is one of the best places to view whales from land. Gazing out over the waters on a clear day, both Mt. Rainier and the Canadian mountains are visible. Binoculars are always helpful, but at this park, the whales can come within feet of the granite bluffs you stand on thanks to the sharp, deep drop of the rocks in the water right offshore.
Although peak sightings for Orcas in this area range from May to September, seeing them year-round is not out of the realm of possibility as three resident pods call the greater Puget Sound home. Plus, a visit is never wasted as there are opportunities to see other species of whales that include Humpback and Minke as well as other marine mammals like sea lions, otters and porpoises. The park even has an underwater microphone that projects the sounds of any animals passing through the area.
Whale Awareness and Education
Take a stroll to downtown Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to dive deeper into learning more about Washington’s marine life. The Whale Museum and Orca Survey Outreach and Education Center both aim to serve as voices for the animals to educate the public about the importance they hold in the ecosystem. As prevalent as Orcas may seem (if you are going off of the amount of gift shop items they appear on), the Southern Resident Orca — those who live off the U.S. Pacific coastline — are actually critically endangered. As of today, there are less than 80. As with any endangered species, the causes of their decline and solutions to their recovery are complex. However, simply spending time peacefully observing these animals can serve as a way to help them.
Orca Network, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the whales of the Pacific Northwest, relies heavily on sighting reports. These reports provide crucial data that gives insight into behavior, number of individuals, stranding events, pod health, migration patterns and more that collectively play a vital role in the research and management of the animals. Head over to their page to learn more and to stay up to date with recent sighting reports around the state.
So, pack up the car with a blanket, a pair of binoculars and your camera. With a little luck and some patience, you may just experience one of Washington’s wild wonders for yourself.