The water off the northwestern coast of Washington affords ample opportunities to see a wide array of wildlife, including orcas and other whales. The following tours, which U.S. News determined to be the best based on the input of both travel experts and tour-takers, will take you to the ideal viewing locations. Not all of these trips leave from the Seattle area, and some may be best suited for daytrips. Most tour options depart from the San Juan Islands, which sit north of Seattle. To get to the islands, you’ll need to drive about 90 miles to Anacortes, Washington, then jump on a ferry. Whale watching in this area generally occurs year-round, with peak viewing opportunities from May to October.
Note: Some whale watching trips have minimum age requirements.
Outer Island Excursions
Price: Adults from $109; kids from $79
Duration: 3.5 hours
Cruise at speeds up to 50 mph (depending on the boat) as you search for whales, porpoises, seals, otters, birds and more. Along with the sights, passengers praise the funny, knowledgeable crew.
Tours depart daily from Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands) at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. beginning Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend and at 1 p.m. in spring (mid-April through May) and fall (September to mid-November). Tickets cost $109 for adults, $99 for seniors 65 and older, $79 for youths 3 to 17 and $10 for infants (ages 2 and younger). Custom and private excursions are available year-round with multiple departure points from mainland locations and other islands. Outer Island Excursions also conducts charter fishing trips and kayak outings.
San Juan Safaris – Classic Whale Watch and Wildlife Tour
Price: Adults from $125; kids from $89
Duration: 3 to 4 hours
This tour concentrates on the resident orcas that spend half the year around the San Juan Islands (though other animals are likely to be seen as well). The onboard naturalists win praise from reviewers for their knowledge and amiability.
Boats depart daily from Friday Harbor near the ferry landing on San Juan Island at 12:30 p.m. from early March through October. In addition, sunset tours that depart at 5:30 p.m. are available from late May into mid-August. Tours last from three to four hours. Tickets start at $125 for adults and $89 for children 2 to 17. (Infants ride for free.)
(Courtesy of Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours)
Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours – Western Explorer II
Price: Adults from $149; kids from $139
Duration: 3 hours
The San Juan Islands afford ample opportunities to see a variety of whale species, including orcas, humpbacks and minkes, as well as porpoises, sea lions, seals and various birds. The 3-hour tour on the Western Explorer II takes 25 travelers on an aluminum boat that can travel up to 40 mph. A unique trait of this tour boat is that it’s powered by low-sound water jets, reducing the vessel’s underwater sound footprint. A captain and naturalist guide each trip. Previous passengers found the experience informative and fun.
The tour is offered April through October at 12:30 p.m. During the summer months (May through September), tours take place at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tickets are $149 for adults and $139 for kids ages 7 to 12. Insulated two-piece suits for each guest are included in the price. This tour is not recommended for kids younger than 6, guests in late-term pregnancy or those with back or neck injuries. If no whales are spotted, Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours will provide a voucher for a future outing. The company also offers private and sea kayaking tours.
Sea Quest Expeditions
Price: From $99
Duration: 3 to 6 hours
Enjoy a close-range view of the marine life that surrounds the San Juan Islands on a full- or half-day kayak outing. In addition to orca, gray and humpback whales, porpoises and sea lions can also be observed in this area. Reviewers consistently call the tour guides exceptionally knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna. However, others expressed disappointment that they did not see more whales.
Trips take place from March through December. Full-day trips last about six hours; half-day trips generally run three hours (including travel time to the launch point and instructions on kayak use). The shorter outings start at 8 a.m. and range from $99 to $129, while the full-day trips commence at 11 a.m. and range from $119 to $149. Sea Quest Expeditions also offers nighttime kayaking tours and multiday kayaking/camping combination trips in Washington, as well as tours operating out of Alaska and Mexico.
(Bart Rulon/Courtesy of Puget Sound Express)
Puget Sound Express – Guaranteed Whale Watching Tours
Price: Adults from $145; kids from $105
Duration: 4 to 5 hours
Departing from Edmonds (about 20 miles north of Seattle), these four- to five-hour boat rides take passengers to the San Juan Islands to see the whales and other sea creatures that inhabit the Salish Sea. Puget Sound Express’ boats feature indoor seating and outdoor viewing decks, as well as a cafe that sells snacks, which tour-takers tend to appreciate. Passengers describe the crew as knowledgeable and personable.
Tours are offered from the end of April through December. You can expect to depart at 9:30 or 11:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m., but note that these times vary with the seasons. These trips are suitable for all ages; tickets start at $145 for adults and $105 for children ages 2 to 10. (Infants cruise free of charge.) Specialty tours focusing on gray whales are also offered in March and April.
Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching
Price: From $149
Duration: 3 to 8 hours
Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching is ideal for nature lovers, as the company takes a “whole ecosystem approach” to its outings – meaning you’ll learn about more than just whales on this excursion. Tours, which are available year-round, explore the Salish Sea in the vicinity of Seattle and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Travelers typically enjoy ample wildlife sightings and appreciate the friendly, knowledgeable crew.
Boats leave from two San Juan Island locations: downtown Friday Harbor near the Washington State Ferry landing and Snug Harbor Resort on the island’s west side. Tours vary in length and are priced accordingly, starting at $149 for three-hour tours, $199 for four-hour tours and $299 for full-day trips (six to eight hours). Multiple start times are available and options vary by season. Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching specializes in small-group outings; the number of participants may range from six to 16, depending on the particular excursion and the customized vessel used. Private charters are also offered.
San Juan Excursions – Whale Watching Tours
Price: Adults from $125; kids from $115
Duration: 3 to 4 hours
Cruise on a converted U.S. Navy search and rescue boat on this three- to four-hour journey amid the San Juan Islands. Tourgoers praise the crews for being exceptionally accommodating and dedicated to finding whales.
The 65-foot boat, which features indoor and outdoor viewing areas, leaves from near Friday Harbor’s ferry terminal at 9 a.m., noon and 1:30 p.m. daily from early April through mid-October. Tickets cost about $125 for adults, $115 for children ages 3 to 12 and $95 for infants. If no orcas are spotted on a given trip, patrons receive free passes for a second chance at seeing the whales on a different tour. Private charters and kayak tours are also available.
Crystal Seas Kayaking
Price: From $125
Duration: 3 to 7 hours
Rather than using motorized vessels, this tour has whale watchers paddle themselves in kayaks. Past patrons describe the observable wildlife as abundant and the guides as personable and entertaining. What’s more, no prior kayaking experience is necessary.
Tours are available daily from April through October. Tickets start at $125 for three-hour and sunset tours and $219 for full-day tours lasting seven hours. The price includes use of all kayaking gear, as well as round-trip transportation from Crystal Seas Kayaking’s office in Friday Harbor to the starting point at Snug Harbor. Trips depart several times a day beginning at 9 a.m. and continuing hourly until about 6:30 p.m. from March through September. From September to mid-October, short tours are offered between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., while full-day tours depart at 11 a.m. The company also has multiday and family tours.
San Juan Outfitters
Price: Adults from $125; kids from $89
Duration: 3 to 4 hours
Acquaint yourself with orca, humpback and minke whales, among many land and sea creatures, on this tour around the San Juan Islands. The 35-foot boat used on this family-friendly outing can accommodate up to 24 passengers and features a 360-degree viewing deck. Tour-takers consistently call the naturalists and guides informative, professional and amusing.
Three- to four-hour trips depart from both San Juan Island’s Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor. The Roche Harbor tour leaves at 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The tour from Friday Harbor departs at 12:30 p.m. between March and October, and an additional tour runs at 5:30 p.m. between Memorial Day and mid-August. Tickets cost $125 for adults and $89 for children ages 2 to 17; infant tickets are free. San Juan Outfitters also conducts kayaking tours.
Frequently Asked Questions
Whale enthusiasts can see orcas and gray and humpback whales year-round. Orcas usually travel through the San Juan Islands from May through October.
For whale watching in Seattle, you should dress in layers. While some tours may provide a raincoat or jacket for guests, it is wise to bring your own coat or jacket in case. Gloves, scarves and waterproof, closed-toed shoes are also ideal.