Even though we’ve gone on several whale and dolphin-watching trips my six-year-old daughter has never seen a whale. We have literally seen whales in the Puget Sound and around the San Juan Islands dozens of times but she is always “too busy” doing something else when one breaches.
If you’re not like my six-year-old, going whale watching around Seattle can be a rewarding way to spend a day on the water.
You can see whales in Seattle waters with the help of a whale viewing trip organizer or simply being in a whale-spotting location like the San Juan Islands when the temperature is right (like in May).
Pro-Tip: It would be best to have a pair of binoculars on your whale-watching adventure as up-close encounters that you see in advertising pictures are incredibly rare.
In this article, you will learn how to prepare for a whale viewing trip in Seattle, which locations are ideal for whale watching, and what you need to do before embarking on this adventure. Let’s start with the first thing you must do: have the right expectations.
Setting Your Seattle Whale-Watching Expectations
The easiest way to avoid disappointment on your whale-watching trip is to set your expectations in line with reality.
You are likely to encounter certain whales in temperate times of the year and may spot a transient whale at any time of the year. The latter requires more luck, and if you go whale watching during the winter, you might as well add another activity to your day’s “to-do” list. That way, you won’t be disappointed if you do not encounter a whale.
Another vital expectation to manage is the size of the whale. Whales have become famous for their size thanks to Moby Dick and the coverage of sperm whales and blue whales. However, the whales you’ll spot in Seattle aren’t blue whales or close to the larger whales in size.
What you will see will look like a gigantic version of a dolphin. Orcas are among the largest whales you can spot in Seattle waters, but since they are at a distance, your binoculars might not do justice to their 16-foot average length.
If you are lucky there is also the possibility of seeing humpbacks, gray whales, minke whales, and more.
The 3 Best Whale-Watching Tours In Seattle
For wildlife enthusiasts and marine life lovers, Seattle is a paradise. Nestled on the western coast, this bustling city not only offers a rich arts scene and culinary delights but also thrilling whale-watching tours. From the elusive Orcas (also known as Killer Whales) to the playful humpbacks, the waters around Seattle are home to a stunning diversity of these gentle giants. My goal here is to present you with a detailed review of the top three guided whale-watching tours in Seattle, from my personal experiences.
1. Puget Sound Express – Half-Day Whale-Watching Tour
The first time I embarked on a whale-watching tour, it was with Puget Sound Express. Their Half-Day Whale Watching Tour is probably the best-known tour in the Seattle area and the one that most people seem to end up booking with.
It doesn’t leave directly from Seattle, however. You’ll have to drive about 30 minutes north to Edmonds to set sail.
However, it’s worth the drive. Puget Sound Express is a family-run business that has been providing tours for over three decades, and their passion for marine life is infectious. As the boat motors out of the harbor, they regale you with tales of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants, making the journey as enjoyable as the destination.
One highlight of my tour was the sighting of a magnificent humpback whale named Big Mama. The crew knew her by name and shared her unique story with us. They also guarantee whale sightings. If you don’t see any whales, you’re given a voucher to come back free of charge, but it seems pretty unlikely.
Tickets for adults are currently priced at $145, while kids between the ages of 2-10 can enjoy the tour for $105, and infants are free (with an adult, of course…).
2. Island Adventures Whale Watching
Island Adventures holds a reputation as one of the top whale-watching services in the Pacific Northwest. Known for their long-duration tours and an impressive sighting rate of over 97%.
The tour departs from Everett, about 25 miles north of Seattle. Their boats are larger and slower, but this allows for a broader viewing range and more comfort. On my journey, the knowledgeable crew gave detailed commentary about the marine ecosystem. We spotted a family of transient orcas on our voyage, although I’ve since soured on them after learning how violent they are…
However, the crew obviously has great respect for wildlife and we appreciated the entire experience.
Prices are $109 for adults and $69 for children between 3-17 years. They also offer a whale sighting guarantee, promising a free trip if no whales are sighted (although their success rate is over 97%…).
3. San Juan Safaris Whale Watching
San Juan Safaris offers an immersive experience departing from Friday Harbor, a picturesque town on San Juan Island that’s a few hours from Seattle (via ferry).
The extra effort to get there is absolutely worth it. The crew’s expertise and enthusiasm stood out as they identified different whale pods and individuals by name. We took this tour for the first time in 2015 right after my daughter was born with the hope of seeing J2, (aka Granny) the oldest known orca in the world at the time. It wasn’t to be but we did see several other whales and had a terrific experience overall.
One thing to note: San Juan Safaris’ tours are on faster, smaller boats, which means they can be a bit bumpier but allow you to cover a greater area in search of whales. It’s just also a bit harder to move so everyone can see everything.
There are several different tours available but prices for adult tickets start at $125 and for children 2-12 years tickets are $89.
What Types Of Whales Will I See?
Most whale-watching tours “guarantee” that you’ll see a whale but, what does that mean?
Well, I haven’t read all of the fine print but it typically means that you’ll see at least one of the seven different species of whale or dolphin that live in the waters around Seattle.
In the Puget Sound in particular you could possibly see one of the four species of whales, including:
1. Orcas (Killer Whales)
Perhaps the most iconic species in these waters, the Orca or Killer Whale is a sight to behold. These large, strikingly black and white whales are actually the largest species of dolphins. They are known for their intelligence, highly structured social groups called pods, and diverse diet, which includes fish, seals, and even other whales. In the waters around Seattle, both Southern “resident” pods (who primarily feed on fish) and “transient” pods (Bigg’s Orcas, who feed on marine mammals) can be observed.
2. Humpback Whales
Renowned for their awe-inspiring acrobatics and hauntingly beautiful songs, Humpback Whales are a joy to witness. These whales are easily identified by their large size, distinctive hump, and long pectoral fins. They are frequent visitors to the Salish Sea during their migration from tropical breeding grounds to Arctic feeding areas. Watch for their enormous flukes (tails) as they dive, which they often lift high above the water.
3. Gray Whales
Gray Whales embark on one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling from the warm waters of Baja California to their feeding grounds in the cool Arctic seas. A few of these whales, known as the “Sounders,” annually stray into Puget Sound, offering an exclusive viewing opportunity. Characterized by their mottled gray bodies and heart-shaped blow, Gray Whales are a delight for whale watchers.
4. Minke Whales
Minke Whales are the most common of the rorquals (a family of baleen whales) found in the waters around Seattle. Although they are smaller and more elusive than the others on this list, the chance to see a Minke Whale shouldn’t be underrated. They’re recognized by their sleek, dark bodies and a white band on each flipper.
Each whale-watching tour in Seattle provides a unique chance to witness these incredible creatures in their natural habitat, offering memories that will last a lifetime. Just remember, while spotting a whale is always a thrilling experience, the success of any whale-watching trip should also be measured by the respect given to these magnificent animals and the knowledge gained about their fascinating lives.
Whale Watching Tips & Prep
One of the best ways to get the most out of your whale-watching experience is to make it effortless.
In this section, we will explore three ways to make your whale-watching experience memorable. None of these are mandatory, so take only what serves you.
Get a Pair of Binoculars
The first thing you should do before you go whale watching is to have a fine pair of binoculars.
Most common-use binoculars can help you notice far-off whales. Ideally, your binoculars would be specialized for hunting and long-range target viewing. This is the only way to get a detailed look at the whales.
A camera with a decent lens is also a good option but, I’ll be honest, you’re probably not going to have the luck or the timing to get any of the epic whale photos you’ve seen online.
Book at the Right Time
The best way to ensure satisfaction in a whale-watching adventure is to time it properly.
The best time to watch whales in Seattle is closer to summer when salmon is most active. May to September is when whales are so active that they can be spotted even on accident. By October, you have to be more intentional with your whale-spotting.
As waters get colder post-October, whales start becoming harder to spot. Getting on an organized whale-watching tour/trip between May and September almost guarantees that you will witness Orcas in their glory.
Visit the Right Spot
Some people dislike organized trips because of their cookie-cutter nature. Others want to save money. From introversion to budget, there are many reasons one might not want to join a specialized whale-watching tour.
You already know that whales are common in Seattle waters from May to September. If you don’t want to join an organized tour and want to solo your whale-watching adventure for any reason, all you need to know is where to be.
Where Can You Watch Whales in Seattle?
You can watch whales in Seattle from San Juan islands, Alki Beach shore, Haines Wharf Park, Rosehill Community Center, Golden Gardens Park-Meadow Point, and almost any water-view location from the West Seattle Coast.
There are many spots from which you can view whales. But the comfy sites have high enough altitude to look past vessels and the proper seating. Again, this is where specialist knowledge is far more helpful than trial and error.
Do I Need to Join a Whale-watching Trip to Watch Whales in Seattle?
You do not need to join a whale-watching trip to watch whales in Seattle or figure out where to view whales in the region. Orcas become a common sight in Seattle waters from May to September. And there are maps that can help you spot the best location to watch whales in Washington.
To watch whales in Seattle without a trip, you need to follow these steps:
- Make time during the right time – Make sure your Seattle whale-viewing trip is scheduled between May and September.
- Check out the Orca Network’s whale-watching map – This map features over 168 locations, including private establishments, where you can watch Orcas from in Washington. Many of these are in Seattle.
- Prepare a shortlist – Given that there are over 168 spots to watch whales and orcas. You might want to zone in a few. For instance, you can strike out all private establishments.
- Cross-reference location with google maps – Before you commit to a single spot, it is advisable to check the reviews of a location on Google Maps. If you’re not a Seattle resident, you might also want to see a few pictures before arriving at a selected spot.
You can see whales off the coast of west Seattle, provided whales are in the visible pacific waters during your visit. Time your visit after may and before October to maximize your odds of encountering an orca.