Washington state is bursting with natural beauty, from its soaring mountains to lush rainforests. But perhaps one of the most unique experiences you can have in Washington is to see orcas, the powerful and toothy creatures we all know and love.
Living in Washington, I’ve had the opportunity to spot orcas every way you can imagine- on a whale watching tour, from land, and even by accident a couple of times! So, if you want to spot these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat, here are 11 of the best places for killer whale watching in Washington (both literally and figuratively!).
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Before we dive in (yet another whale pun!), let’s back up a bit.
What are killer whales?
Killer whales, or orcas, are actually not whales at all, but in fact, the largest member of the dolphin family. Known for their distinctive black and white coloring, orcas are one of the most well-known types of marine life on the planet, given they hold the title of the most widely distributed of all whales and dolphins, being found in every ocean on Earth!
Because they’re so diversely located, their diet, which supports their massive bodies of up to 22,000 pounds, differs significantly, depending on where they live. Here in my home state of Washington, the resident orcas that typically live in the Salish Sea exist solely on salmon, whereas transient orcas eat larger mammals, like gray whales, harbor seals, and sea lions.
Beyond being an intense predator of the sea, killer whales are incredibly intelligent, with the second largest brain of all marine animals. Since the 1960s, humans capitalized on their intelligence, using orcas in marine theme park shows, like SeaWorld.
Thankfully, the 2013 documentary, Blackfish, shed light on the cruelties and harm of keeping these creatures captive. Folks have been going the Free Willy route ever since, (rightfully) choosing to see orcas in the wild instead.
Which brings us to…
Killer Whale Watching in Washington
So you’re headed to Washington and wanna see some orcas. Solid choice, my friend!
Washington is one of the best places to see orcas in the world, so you’ve got a couple of choices on how to see these mighty creatures in the wild.
Take a Whale Watching Cruise
The best way to get (reasonably) up close and personal with orcas is to take a whale watching cruise. The captains of these boats know where the orcas like to hang out and hunt and can chat with other boat captains, who share the exact coordinates of where they’ve spotted orcas and the direction in which they’re headed.
So where can you go whale watching in Washington? While whale watching cruises depart from several ports all around Washington (which we’ll talk about more below), almost all of them head to one spot- the San Juan Islands.
The San Juan Islands are a cluster of islands, located about an hour and a half north of Seattle in the Salish Sea, between Washington state and Vancouver Island, Canada. You can only access the islands via boat (which, given we’re going on a whale watching cruise, isn’t really an issue!).
The orcas LOVE the San Juan Islands. There’s an underwater canyon to the west of the islands that’s perfect for catching salmon for the resident orcas and, for the mammal-loving transient population, this area is rich with seals, sea lions, and other (adorable) orca food.
While you’re almost certainly going to be cruising to the San Juan Islands if you’re heading on an orca watching tour in Washington, you have plenty of options of where to actually depart from:
Best Places in Washington to Go on a Whale Watching Tour
1. Seattle: If you’re visiting Washington from out of state, you’ll almost certainly be spending at least a weekend in Seattle, home to the iconic Space Needle and Nirvana. Between drinking your weight in coffee and perusing Pike Place Market, you can also head out on a whale watching cruise from the city, like this half-day tour.
The awesome thing about this option is its central location. If you’re not renting a car during your visit, this will be by far the most convenient whale watching cruise option to access. And while you’ll spend a lot of time on the boat getting to the waters around the San Juan Islands, you’ll get to enjoy spectacular views of Mount Rainier and the Seattle skyline and have the opportunity to spot other marine life along the way, like minke whales, Dall’s porpoises, and even humpback whales.
2. Anacortes: Anacortes is a small coastal town, located an hour and a half north of Seattle on Fidalgo Island, right across the water from the San Juans. Unlike the San Juan Islands, though, Fidalgo Island is connected to Washington’s coastline by a bridge and doesn’t necessitate taking a ferry to visit.
I’ve personally gone on a whale watching cruise from Anacortes, like this tour, and REALLY enjoyed it. Because it’s right across the bay from the San Juan Islands, you spend a lot less time trying to get to where the orcas hang out and, instead, have a lot more time, you know, actually whale watching.
For more adventurous souls, you can even go on a kayaking tour to try to spot orcas from the water, like this one (this is 100% on my Pacific Northwest bucket list!). On a totalllly unrelated note, did you know that there’s never been a documented attack by an orca on a human in the wild?
Beyond being ones of the best places to see orcas in Washington, this little town and the surrounding area is totally worth checking out, like the incredible Deception Pass State Park.
3. San Juan Islands: Of course, you can obviously take a cruise directly from the San Juan Islands themselves! It’s a popular weekend trip from Seattle to drive up to Anacortes and then take a ferry over to one of the San Juan Islands. Besides whale watching, there’s lots to do on the San Juan Islands, like exploring cute towns, including Friday Harbor (the setting for the witchy movie, Practical Magic) or hiking on incredible trails.
Most whale watching cruises from the San Juan Islands leave from Friday Harbor, the largest town on San Juan Island itself. You can either go on a standard tour, like this four-hour tour, or on a variety of kayaking tours. For example, San Juan Kayak Expeditions offers tours ranging from a three hour paddle to a two-day “orca quest”.
Even if you’re planning on staying at one of the other islands instead, you may be able to find a tour there. For example, this tour leaves from the largest of the islands, the aptly-named Orcas Island.
To get from the Pacific Ocean to the waters around the San Juan Islands, orcas usually swim through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which runs between the border of Canada and the Olympic Peninsula on Washington’s northwestern corner.
This is actually part of the so-called Whale Trail, which is a series of sites, running from British Columbia down through northern California, that are excellent for whale watching.
So it’s no surprise that there’s whale watching tours that depart along this strait as well, like from:
4. Port Townsend: This town is perched on the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula and is SO stinkin’ cute. It’s packed with Victorian buildings and is home to an INCREDIBLE cidery, Finn River Farm (and I don’t really even like cider!).
Beyond its awesome cider, Port Townsend is home to a Whale Trail site and is located on the eastern edge of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and directly south of the San Juan Islands. Accordingly, whale watching tours that depart from here, like the Puget Sound Express, have a pretty decent chance of spotting orcas while they’re cruising to the whales’ hang-out spots in the San Juan Islands.
5. Port Angeles: This fishing town, sitting at the base of the Olympic Mountains, is similarly situated along the eastern portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and home to two Whale Trail sites.
Port Angeles is best known as the gateway to Olympic National Park. I could go on and on about Olympic National Park (actually, I have… quite a lot), which offers one of the most diverse landscapes in the country. So be sure to spend at least a weekend in Olympic National Park and explore some of its best hikes that traverse the park’s towering mountains, lush rainforests, and dramatic coastline.
In addition to being an awesome homebase for seeing Olympic, there’s also a few whale watching cruises that depart from the town, like this one. Given you’re a bit farther away from the San Juan Islands than from Port Townsend, you’ll spend more time transiting to the islands as opposed to actually observing orcas.
Similar to above, though, since you’ll be cruising along the Strait, you may get to spot some whales on your way to the San Juans- and this time, you’ll have the spectacular Olympic Mountains as your backdrop!
Whale Watching from Land
Going on a whale watching tour is going to be your best bet for seeing killer whales out in the wild, given the captain can literally cruise to wherever happens to be the best place to see orcas on that particular day.
But what if a whale watching tour, which can be $100+, is too rich for your blood or you don’t have time to spend three hours on a boat?
You can take your chances and try to see orcas from land instead. Luckily, even if you don’t see orcas, most of these spots are, like, super cool regardless!
So where exactly should you go in Washington to spot orcas?
Tip: Regardless of where you go on the list below, I’d recommend bringing along some binoculars. Unlike most whale watching marketing materials will lead you to believe, orcas don’t really spend that much time doing flips in the middle of the air and, instead, mostly come up to the surface to breathe air through their blowhole. Binoculars will help you get a view of these not-so-obvious movements- and will make you look like a real whale watching aficionado.
Best Places in Washington for Whale Watching from Land
6. Alki Beach: This one’s for the rom-com lovers out there- you know that beach, where Tom Hanks is playing with his kid in Sleepless in Seattle? That’s Alki Beach, located in West Seattle, which offers the very best views of the Seattle skyline in the entire city. I may be biased- I live right by Alki in West Seattle!
Beyond its brush with Tom Hanks in the early ‘90s, Alki is one of the best places in Seattle to see orcas, especially in fall and winter, when the resident orcas swim back to this area.
The best chance of spotting orcas here is to head to the western side of the beach and look north, towards Bainbridge Island. The orcas generally swim straight down the middle of this channel.
Although I know orca sightings are pretty common from Alki, in full disclosure, I’ve personally never seen one here, although I’ve spotted plenty of other cute marine creatures, like seals. If all else fails, there’s tons of fun places to get a bite or a beer, like El Chupacabra or West Seattle Brewing Company.
7. Deception Pass State Park: As mentioned above, Deception Pass is a STUNNING Washington State Park in Anacortes, with awesome campgrounds, beaches, and hiking trails.
I’ve actually spotted orcas twice while hiking in Deception Pass (in the exact same spot!). It turns out that killer whales love to cruise from Skagit Bay along Wasington’s coast, through Deception Pass, and out to their playground of the San Juan Islands. So anywhere in the park where you have a good view of the Pass, like from its iconic bridge or North Beach, you may just happen to spot an orca.
Pssst… you’ll need to get a Discover Pass, which is either $10 for one day or $32 for an annual pass.
8. Lime Kiln North State Park: This park, located in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, is arguably one of the best places to see orcas from land on the planet. Thanks to high vantage points from either its lighthouse or its many dramatic cliffs overlooking the Salish Sea, you’ll have an excellent chance to not only spot orcas, but also gray whales, porpoises, and humpback whales, especially towards the park’s southern coastline.
Beyond its whale watching, there’s a few short and interesting trails in the park, where you’ll get to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and some historic sites, like lime kilns from the 1800s.
A Discover Pass is also required here.
9. Cape Flattery: If you want to check two things off your bucket list at once, what about seeing orcas in the wild and visiting the northwesternmost point in the contiguous United States? Cape Flattery, located in the Neah Bay on the Makah Reservation, holds that mouthful of a title.
Beyond its impressive title, Cape Flattery is gorgeous, with dramatic cliffs, views of the turquoise ocean below, and SO much wildlife. In fact, the area around the Cape is considered the Flattery Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, which acts as a safe haven to not only orcas that cruise through its waters on their way to the Salish Sea, but also the tufted puffins, elephant seals, and hundreds of species of birds that call this area home.
I visited Cape Flattery in the summertime and was lucky enough to see two large pods of orcas off the Cape Flattery trail’s final viewpoint in a pretty short period of time. From talking to a volunteer here, you can spot orcas and gray whales here almost every day in the warmer months.
You’ll need to stop in the town of Neah Bay to pick up a Makah Recreation Pass, which is $20 and good for one calendar year.
Finally, there’s so many stunning beaches in Olympic National Park that are recognized by the Whale Trail as excellent spots to see these massive creatures.
Some of the best spots are where there’s bluffs or cliffs overlooking the water below, so you can spot orcas swimming further out, like:
10. Shi Shi Beach: Located in Neah Bay, near Cape Flattery, Shi Shi Beach is one of the most remote beaches in Olympic- and one of the most stunning. It’s known for the Point of Arches, a cluster of dramatic sea stacks jutting out of the Pacific Ocean.
To get to Shi Shi, you’ll hike through a swampy forest and eventually, along a coastal bluff, with peekaboo glimpses to the sparkling water below. Coming prepared with binoculars, so you can see whales spouting off in the distance.
In addition to just day-hiking here, you can also go camping at Shi Shi Beach, which, I can confirm, is a megacool experience. Even if you don’t happen to spot any whales, you’ll get to have some of the world’s most dramatic coastline as your backyard for a night or two!
Again, you’ll need a Makah Recreation Pass for this one.
11. Kalaloch Beach: Kalaloch Beach is located near Forks, of the sparkly teem vampire romance Twilight fame. Unlike a lot of Olympic’s beaches, Kalaloch is flat and sandy, without nary a rugged sea stack in sight.
Kalaloch does have two really special things, though. The first is coastal bluffs, which, again, offer a great vantage point for spotting whales. The second is the incredible Tree of Life, a sitka spruce suspended from two parted coastal bluffs, barely hanging on to the eroding cliff-sides by just a few root tendrils.
Come for the orcas, stay for the uniquely beautiful tree that’s seemingly levitating (for now).
When to Go Whale Watching in Washington
You can theoretically see killer whales in Washington all year round, but some times are definitely better for whale watching than others. For example, most of the whale watching cruises start in spring in Washington, around April, and run through September, when salmon are more prevalent around the San Juan Islands and seals and other marine life typically breed.
Once the salmon extravaganza dries up, come October, you may get lucky and still spot an orca or two around Seattle or the San Juans, but your chances are a lot slimmer.
I hope your whale watching in Washington goes off without a hitch and you get the opportunity to see these incredible creatures out in the wild. Do you have any questions about seeing orcas in Washington? Let me know in the comments below!
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