Whale watching in the San Juan Islands, WA with Legacy Charters. A day tour with fantastic guides, lots of wildlife, and a rare humpback whale sighting
Orca whales are one of the main attractions of the San Juan Islands in Washington. Every year, thousands of tourists flock to the islands and go on whale watch tours in hopes of catching a glimpse of these beautiful and often playful creatures in the wild. Paddy and I had been out whale watching in the San Juan Islands on a small boat whale watch tour about 10 years ago, and it was an amazing experience to see them so close. A huge male swam right under the boat, humbling us with a close look at his enormous size.
Summer is the peak time for whale watching in the San Juan Islands. Aside from having the best weather of the year, in summer the salmon come through the San Juans on their way to the Frazier River to spawn, increasing the food supply in the area for the southern resident orcas. Transient and resident orcas can be seen year round, but the increased population of orcas in the summer increases the chances of a sighting, and is usually the best time to go whale watching.
I was invited out on a whale watch tour in the spring with a good friend of mine, Rachel, and her husband Spencer with their tour company, Legacy Charters. Most whale watch tours only operate in the summer, but Legacy Charters operates all year long. They see plenty of orcas and wildlife in the winter as well as summer. Even if you don’t get to see whales, there are lots of other birds and marine animals to see, as well as the beautiful island scenery that you won’t see on a ferry. Tours last about 2.5 to 3 hours.
It was April, and rain was predicted all day. In addition, no Orca whales had been sighted in several days. While whales are the main attraction, I was hopeful that we might catch a glimpse of some other wildlife such as porpoises, harbor seals, bald eagles, and sea lions.
I met up with Rachel and Spencer at Snug Harbor, a quiet little harbor with a resort on the north west side of San Juan Island. Legacy Charter’s tours depart from the west side of the island, which is where the whales are usually sighted. It ended up being a magical afternoon. The sun came out (contrary to the dreary weather report), and the water was as calm as it could possibly get. I took my motion sickness medicine just in case, and we set out.
As we departed, naturalist Heather showed us some miniature model whales and gave a quick presentation on the types of whales that can be seen in Puget Sound, and a little bit about each of them.
The types of whales you can find in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea are the orca whale, gray whale, minke whale, and the humpback whale. The humpback whales spend the winter in warmer waters and only migrate to Puget Sound in the summer season. Humpback whale sightings are rare, but Rachel and Spencer had word that “Big Mama,” a female humpback who summers in the San Juans, was back earlier than usual and making an appearance that day in the waters just over the Canadian border.
Hopeful, we sped across the calm water to the area Big Mama was reportedly swimming. The sun was warm, but I was glad I had brought a hat and hooded rain coat, as the wind was cold while we traveled.
It wasn’t too long before we reached the area where Big Mama had been reported. Captain Spencer slowed the engine, and we waited. Within several minutes we saw her surface and blow water from her blowhole. Everyone was excited.
Spencer got a little closer, still keeping a safe distance. The fine for getting too close to a whale is pretty steep, and it is important to give the animals plenty of space for their safety. We watched her surface every few minutes for a little while, as she glided around in the water.
At one point we were all staring off the side of the boat, waiting for Big Mama to come up again, and she seemed to be down a little longer than usual. Suddenly she surfaced right near the back of the boat, spouting water from her blow hole and startling us all. It was so exciting to see her so close. She must have been a bit curious about our boat. Rachel and Spencer were really excited–they said they’ve never seen a humpback that close before in all their tours whale watching in the San Juan Islands.
We watched her for a bit longer, she swam further away but I managed a good zoom shot of her tail on one of the few times she did a deep dive and showed it to us.
Seeing Big Mama was definitely the highlight of the trip, but Captain Spencer was ready to see what other kinds of wild life we could find before the tour was over. We saw a couple of porpoises from a distance, but they were pretty far away. We passed a couple bald eagles sitting in the setting sun on the hills and trees of the islands we passed.
Pretty soon we reached what Captain Spencer called a “sea lion bachelor party” on Spieden Island. It was a congregation of stoic and blubbery steller sea lion males, sunning themselves proudly on the rocks while another group swam leisurely just off the shore. Rachel said they do this a lot, leave all the females and have some guy time. They were noisy, grunting and barking at each other over who got which spots on the rocks.
As we got closer to the rock, a horrendous smell wafted through the air. I asked Rachel if they were farting. “No,” she said. “That’s their breath.” Fortunately, the breeze shifted.
We watched the sea lions for a bit. They were aware of us, but seemed more interested in barking at each other.
We then continued back towards San Juan, passing two separate rocky outcroppings full of harbor seals sunning themselves, or as Captain Spencer calls them, “rock sausages.” They reminded me of our cats on a warm summer day on the patio.
They are very sausage-like, but the nickname also comes from the harbor seal being a favorite food for transient orcas. Resident orcas only eat salmon, while the transient orcas eat seals, porpoises, sea lions, and other marine mammals.
I asked Spencer and Rachel why the two groups of whales eat different cuisine. Spencer said it was cultural, kind of like how people in China eat rice, and people in Italy eat pasta. The two groups of orcas don’t interact with each other at all. Spencer has seen resident and transient pods swim right by each other with no interaction. No interbreeding has ever been documented. It is almost like they are a separate species. Aside from having separate cultures, biologists have also noted different “languages” between the two groups. Spencer says he hears a difference in the calls of the resident whales vs the transients.
The tour ended at sunset, and it was a great time. I’d recommend Legacy Charters for whale watching in the San Juan Islands over many other tour groups due to the small boat experience. Going in a small boat with a maximum of around six passengers gives you a more intimate experience with the whales, and an opportunity to ask questions and learn more from the guides. Also, the large boat tours leave out of Friday Harbor on the east side of San Juan Island, and the whales are normally seen on the west side. Leaving from the west side at Snug Harbor gives you more tour time and more wildlife viewing opportunities. I would strongly recommend bringing a car to San Juan Island, however if you don’t have a car with you Legacy Charters can help arrange transportation from Friday Harbor to Snug Harbor and back.
I would also recommend a visit to the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor before you go whale watching in the San Juan Islands if time allows. It is a great museum with tons of information on the whales in the area and will help you understand more about these beautiful creatures before you see them in the wild.
Also, don’t forget to make your ferry reservations in advance!
The San Juan Islands have plenty to offer in the winter with lower prices and fewer tourists. What to see and do in Friday Harbor, WA in the winter time:
I was born and raised in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, WA. Paddy spent his high school years there as well, and both of us lived there for a short period of time as adults after we met. It was a unique way to grow up, something I appreciate more and more as I get older.
Summertime is peak tourist season for the San Juan Islands. Hoards of tourists travel from all over the world to come see the beautiful islands, many in hopes of catching a glimpse of the infamous orca whales in the area. The tourists thin drastically after Labor Day and by November are nearly non-existent until spring.
While the locals breathe a heavy sigh of relief after the craziness of the summer season, those in the service industry must tighten their belts as their incomes decline for the winter.
I think winter is a great time to visit. We end up there in the winter most often because we visit family during the holidays, but winter time in Friday Harbor has its merits:
1. Prices are lower.
Hotel prices drop almost 50%. Almost all of the accommodations in Friday Harbor and San Juan Island cost a small fortune in the summertime. By spending less money on lodging, you’ll have more money for going out to eat and other things.
2. Less waiting in line.
Whether it is for a ferry or a popular restaurant, you will spend much less time waiting and more time doing things. Even with the newly introduced reservation system for the ferries, you will have more room to be spontaneous with your ferry times and reservations will be plentiful.
3. Friendlier locals.
As someone who worked summers in Friday Harbor restaurants and hotels for ten years, I can attest that summer can be hell for those in the service industry. Rude, entitled tourists, family groups of 16 expecting to walk in and get a table at a restaurant without a reservation, non-stop lines and never being able to find a parking spot in town takes it’s toll on the locals. In the winter, everyone is relaxed and happy to accept your patronage. Most people anyway.
4. Peace and quiet.
Going up to the island in the winter has a calming effect on me. It probably has to do with my memories of living there in the winter: cozy evenings by the wood stove, enjoying a cup of tea with a friend at her cabin in the woods, walks in American Camp with no one else around. Time slows down, and relaxation begins.
There is a lot to see and do in Friday Harbor and San Juan Island, and I’m not going to cover everything here. Just the highlights of my favorite things to do and see for a winter visit.
How to get there:
You can reach Friday Harbor via Washington State Ferry from Anacortes, WA. Up until this month, the ferries were first come, first served. This meant long ferry lines in the summer, and needing to arrive 1-3 hours in advance depending on the season. There is absolutely nothing to do near the Anacortes Ferry terminal (except take a walk on the rocky beach), which makes for a boring wait.
There is now a reservation system for ferries both ways (you pay in Anacortes round trip). You reserve online, pay when you get there. A credit card is required to make the reservation but it is only charged a $10.00 no-show fee if you miss the boat. If you need to change your reservation to a different boat, you can do so up to three hours before departure of the sailing you reserved.
There has been some debate and controversy from locals about this system, as it doesn’t let people be as flexible. During tourist season in the summer, it could either be a blessing or a burden for local residents. Time will tell.
A “straight through” sailing from Anacortes to Friday Harbor (and vice versa) is about an hour. If there is a stop at Lopez Island, usually about an hour and a half. We’ve come to take the ride for granted due to the number of times we’ve taken it in our lives, but the scenery is stunning.
Things to see and do:
**Note: Bring your car. It is expensive, but worth it as everything worth seeing on the island is outside of town, and there is no public transportation.
North side of the island:
Head out of town on Roche Harbor Road 9.5 miles to Roche Harbor on the north end of the island. Near the road down into the harbor you will find an expansive 19 acre outdoor sculpture park right outside the harbor road entrance. The Wescott Bay Sculpture Park has many unique pieces to view, so bring some rain gear and walking shoes and plan to spend awhile.
On the opposite side of Roche Harbor Road from the sculpture park is one of my all time favorite places to see on San Juan Island, The Mausoleum.
The Mausoleum was built by Roche Harbor founder John McMillan as a final resting place for his family.
Parking is in a gravel lot facing the private airfield, and the trail is just up the road a few feet. An easy half mile hike through the woods takes you past several old tombstones that are gated by wire and picket fences.
The windy little path through the woods meets up with a wide path that leads to the Mausoleum, “Afterglow Vista.”
It is beautiful and eery at the same time. The structure contains symbolism of the Masonic order. Grecian style columns surround a marble and stone table on a stone platform with six chairs surrounding it. Each chair contains the ashes of a family member, as well as his secretary. One of the columns was built purposefully broken.
I was here in December and there wasn’t another soul around. It was peaceful and a little spooky. I remember coming here as a teenager with my friends at night and scaring ourselves.
If you venture into Roche Harbor, you’ll find a harbor, a cafe, grocery store, gift shop, old historic Hotel De Haro, and remains of John McMillan’s lime quarry. McMillan’s Restaurant in the Hotel De Haro is pricey but very good. The restaurant and hotel are rumored to be haunted. Paddy worked with a guy who used to work there and he has stories of lights and radios coming on by themselves when he was alone at night closing the kitchen in the winter. In the summer you’ll find Roche Harbor bustling with wealthy tourists, the harbor full of expensive yachts. In the winter, it is a sleepy little historic spot.
On the way back to town, stop off at San Juan Vineyards for wine tasting and be sure to say hi to Mona the camel across the road.
A camel? What? Yes, there is Mona, the San Juan Island camel who lives on a farm across the road from San Juan Vineyards. Mona has a story, which you can read here. San Juan Vineyards has even made a wine in honor of Mona, the Mona Vino.
As tempting as it is, please don’t feed Mona. Too many people were coming by offering her apples and carrots and she became in danger of developing diabetes. Just take a photo and say hi to her from the fence.
South side of the island:
I grew up out on the south end of San Juan Island, and it is one of my favorite parts. The beaches are the best on the south end, and the grassy trails of American Camp park and cliffs overlooking the sea are a place I used to spend hours wandering while growing up.
To reach American Camp Park, head out of town on Mullis Street (left turn off Spring Street if traveling from the ferry/main part of town) and continue about 6 miles on Cattle Point Road.
It’s not much to see in the winter time, but the most popular beach on the island is Eagle Cove Beach, which is accessed just before American Camp by taking a right down Eagle Cove Drive when you see the American Camp sign (just before the sign). The parking area will be on the left about 1/4 of a mile.
The tide stays pretty high all winter long at Eagle Cove, but in the summer it goes out pretty far, creating an ideal sandy spot for families and skim boarders.
Back to American Camp. There is a lot to see in this expansive park. The park gets its name due to it being the remnants of a civil-war era American military camp (there is also a British Camp Park in the north part of the island, which is lovely but I prefer to visit it in the summer time.) From Cattle Point Road, turn right onto the small road at the American Camp sign (the road right after Eagle Cove Drive). A parking lot and visitors’ center is at the end of the short road.
**Note: the park ranger is pretty strict about keeping dogs on leashes everywhere in the park. Failing to do so may result in a ticket.
From the parking lot, there is a well-maintained pathway around the old officer’s quarters and other historical buildings, with plaques explaining the historical significance along the way.
Once you’ve had your fill of history, branch off on one of the trails heading towards the sea to explore the cliffs and hidden coves along the coast. If it is winter, you might have it all to yourself.
If you continue on the path going straight (south) from the visitors’ center parking lot and officer’s quarters, you’ll find more trails that will eventually connect with the Redoubt and the road to South Beach.
There is more to see if you continue by car down to Cattle Point, the south tip of the island:
4th of July Beach
Some people like this beach on Griffin Bay for BBQs and picnics, but it is one of my least favorite beaches on the island. I find it rocky and kind of boring. Skip it and head to South Beach instead.
Jakle’s Lagoon and Mt. Finlayson
This is a loop trail with a peaceful woodsy walk to Jakle’s Lagoon and stunning views of American Camp on top of Mt. Finlayson. Mt. Finlayson isn’t much of a mountain, but it’s the highest point on the south end of San Juan Island. You can hike it either direction from the parking lot.
South Beach is the largest beach on San Juan Island. Fires and BBQs are allowed in designated spots, but no overnight camping and keep your dog on a leash. There are outhouses available here.
Cattle Point and Cattle Point Lighthouse
At the end of the main road you’ll find a parking lot for Cattle Point Beach Park (Discover Pass required to park in the parking lot) and a short and very scenic trail to Cattle Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse hike is beautiful and I highly recommend it.
In Friday Harbor town:
Back in town you’ll find a lot of shops and restaurants. The boutiques on Spring Street have some nice things but most tend to be a little expensive, especially clothing. Some of my favorite shops:
Serendipity Used Books
Located right across from the ferry landing at 223 A St, Serendipity Books is full of used gems at reasonable prices. They also buy books for cash or trade.
The Second Act
The Second Act on 2nd Street has been around for ages, although it has changed locations a couple of times. I found some amazing vintage dresses there back in high school. It is a consignment shop so everything is used but in like-new condition. Prices are good and there’s new items all the time.
Griffin Bay Book Store
If you didn’t find any used treasures at Serendipity, or you did but are looking for something specific, Griffin Bay Book Store at 155 Spring Street is the new book store on the island. It has also been around forever and has changed locations as well, as is common for island businesses.
Funk & Junk Antiques
Another great spot for treasure hunting. Also been around forever, has also change locations. Now at 85 Nichols Street.
Some of my favorite restaurants on the island aren’t open in the winter, are closed on weekends, or have a habit of closing up for extended periods in the winter. Here are a few solid suggestions for winter which should be open:
Cask & Schooner
I’d have to say this is my favorite winter dinner spot. Formerly the Friday Harbor Alehouse, the new owners have really done a great job remodeling the interior and adding a whole new fantastic menu. I highly recommend the beet salad, and I’ve had the best crab cakes I’ve ever had in my life here. That’s a big statement for me–I’ve eaten a lot of crab cakes. If you’re not hungry, it’s still a great spot to warm up with a drink at the bar.
1 Front Street. Dinner specials rotate, available after 5:00. Regular pub menu available for lunch and dinner.
San Juan Island Cheese
Yes, they sell cheese. They also serve wine and beer and a delicious light lunch from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM Tuesday through Saturday (Cheeseboards and snacks available until 3:00 PM). Great spot to pick up a picnic lunch or stop in to warm up in the afternoon with some wine and a sandwich. Their bread is from local Bakery San Juan. http://www.sjicheese.com/
The Hungry Clam (breakfast)
I’ve never been a huge fan of the lunch at the Hungry Clam, the fries are always really greasy. However, they took over the breakfast menu (and staff) of the long-standing local favorite Blue Dolphin Cafe, after the Blue Dolphin lost their old diner spot next door. Standard big greasy diner fare, and open early right next to the ferry landing if you want to go in for breakfast before your boat. Paddy always orders the California Omelet and I always order the Veggie Benny. Just be sure to leave enough time to dine, you need to be back at your car 20 minutes before departure for ferry loading. 205 A Street.
Mi Casita relocated a couple years back to 680 Spring Street (inside the Best Western Hotel) and I’ve only been to the new location once. When I Paddy and I lived on the island 10 + years ago this was one of our favorite restaurants, with some of the best blended margaritas I’ve ever had. My favorite is the seafood quesadilla.
Vinny’s has solidly good Italian food, and it has stood the test of time in Friday Harbor–something that is not easy in a seasonal economy. The atmosphere is nice and romantic.
I’ve heard great things about Cafe Demeter (80 Nichols Street) for coffee and pastries, Pablitos Taqueria (104 A First Street) and Tops’l Seafood and Sushi(1 Front Street, above the Cask & Schooner) but I have not yet had a chance to eat at any of them. My all time favorite lunch spot is The Market Chef, (225 A Street) but last time I checked they are still closed on weekends, which is the only time I am ever on the island. If you’re visiting on a weekday, definitely make a point to check the place out for lunch or to pick up a picnic to go. Everything they make is outstanding, including homemade bread for their sandwiches.
Where to stay:
Being former locals, we haven’t stayed at a lot of places on the island ourselves. However, we know a bit about a few of them and here are my suggestions:
Juniper Lane Guest House
Juniper (the owner) is a friend of mine and has done an amazing job of blending cozy island style with hip, modern decor to create a warm, inviting, and affordable B&B. Juniper Lane Guest House also offers a cabin for rent and two backpacker/family rooms that can accommodate up to 6 people with bunk beds. Children must be 12 or older to stay. The Guest House is not very far from town (a little bit of a trek but still walkable) and offers beautiful grounds and pastoral views.
I used to work at Lakedale Resort many years ago and therefore know it pretty intimately. If you are looking for secluded peace and quiet or a romantic getaway, this is your place. The resort offers 9 lake view lodge rooms with jacuzzi bathtubs and gas fireplaces, as well as 6 cabins and one three-bedroom lake house. Cabins and the lake house enjoy shared use of a hot tub in a centrally located gazebo. The woodsy decor, lake views and fireplaces make it an ideal winter getaway, and the prices are much lower November through April.
Be aware that it is four miles from Friday Harbor town so you will need to drive into town for meals if you stay at the lodge. Cabins have full kitchens and accommodate up to 6 people with one bedroom, a loft bedroom, and a futon in the living room.
I haven’t been to the Island Inn, but I’ve heard great things. It is centrally located in town within easy walking distance to everything. The rooms look modern from the photos and many appear to have great views of the harbor. They have some budget friendly-options as well.
Friday Harbor House
Paddy and I stayed at the Friday Harbor House once in November, and it was really nice. The prices in the summer are atrocious, and even in the winter it is a bit of a splurge but much more reasonable. Most rooms offer views of the harbor, gas fireplaces, and jacuzzi tubs. The complimentary continental breakfast in the morning was outstanding, including house made quiche and coffee cake. Location is ideal–easy walk from the ferry and everything in town.
If you’re looking for a relaxing getaway, wintertime in Friday Harbor is about as laid-back as it gets. Only a two-hour drive from Seattle to the Anacortes Ferry, it makes for an easy weekend visit. The islands stay beautiful year-round, just remember to bring some rain gear and warm clothes.