Orca Whale Kayaking Tour On San Juan Island

Orca Whale Kayaking Tour On San Juan Island
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Photo by Audrey Kirchner

Adventure Tourism: Whale Watching Kayak Tour on San Juan Island

San Juan Island is one of my favorite places on earth. I have been so blessed that every time we’ve gone to the island, we have been privileged to see my favorite of all wildlife – the magnificent Orca whales. To see them in their natural environment is breathtaking. 

That was the main reason for me signing up for a whale watching kayak tour on one extended visit to San Juan Island.

Adventure tourism doesn’t get any better than whale watching kayak tours.  It’s a great way to spend time on your vacation. 

In my humble opinion, it doesn’t get much better than the tours on San Juan Island.

Come with me on my personal adventure on the high seas and although my experience is in my typical activity-impaired fashion, let me be clear about the incredible adventure of these tours and the beauty for all to see on San Juan Island.

I have posted pictures as well of the Sea Quest Expeditions tour group.  I’m not sure what company we went through when we had our adventure years ago. However, these San Juan Islands Kayak tours are selected as a top 100 adventure!

Intex Challenger K1 Kayak
Amazon Price: $86.95
List Price: $146.99
Sevylor Fiji Travel Pack Kayak (Blue,2-Person)
Amazon Price: $106.99
List Price: $144.99

Kayaking Whale Watching Tour San Juan Island

As I mentioned, San Juan Island is one of my favorite places in all the
world. We have been there countless
times and have been fortunate to see the Orca whales in their natural habitat
every single time. However, our middle
son is legally blind and in my endeavors to always bring everything he can’t
see to him, I had one of my famous ‘brilliant’ ideas.

We were going on a camping trip as a family
to San Juan Island this particular summer and I had this dynamite idea that
just couldn’t miss. We would go on a
whale-watching tour by kayak and see if we could see the Orcas but this time
really, truly up close and personal. So
far I had failed at getting him to see them on a whale-watching boat tour, so I
truly needed to see if I could get this right – or so I thought.

I should point out at this point that I had never kayaked up to this point in my life. I asked Bob about
it and he said it was just like canoeing or row-boating so I figured how hard
could it be? I did some investigating
and began making calls to all the places that did kayak tours on San Juan
Island and once I’d figured out when and where, it seemed logical to book the

This of course was way before the
Internet and getting a birdseye view of something before you jump in with both

While I was talking to the tour company on the phone, I
asked a lot of questions because I wanted to find out first of all if it was
safe to do – even though Bob and I and our friend were certainly qualified as
adults – but my kids were high school age. I just needed to cover all the bases and make
sure I wasn’t leading them into a dangerous situation. Little did I realize it was myself I was

The fellow on the phone patiently answered all my questions
while giving me a lot of great information – how beautiful it was kayaking in
the Strait of Juan de Fuca, how many people had seen whales, how great it was
to be so up close and personal. I asked
repeatedly about my arms because I happen to have terrible ‘wear and tear’ syndrome on my
arms to the tune of carpal tunnel from my years as a transcriptionist.

I asked several times if I would have any
troubles at all rowing or paddling the kayak to which he answered emphatically
‘no’. It was something anyone could
do. (I should have known that the word
‘anyone’ precluded yours truly) He also
added that the best time to go was the evening cruise because that was when you
were most likely to see the whales. I
think he saw me coming a mile away.

When I told everyone about the added bonus outing to the
camping trip, needless to say, they were ecstatic. I was actually really looking forward to this
because I so love the Orca whales and the thought of seeing them so close was
just almost too much for me to comprehend. We ended up with 6 of us going – our 3 teenage children, Bob and I and a
friend of ours who had come with us on the camping trip.

The day of the trip dawned beautifully enough but by late
afternoon, the clouds had moved in and as my luck would have it, it started to
drizzle. Consequently, when we arrived
at the cove for the tour, we were all bundled in sweatshirts. Somehow the drizzle of the late afternoon
(about 5:00 p.m. or so) seemed amplified now that we were going out onto the

Our guide of course was young and svelt. Normally, I would look at this as a perk
because not only would I be getting a workout and be enjoying Mother Nature,
but I’d have eye candy to look at as well. (Hey – I’m old but I’m not dead)

I quickly changed my opinion though and decided this was not going to be a
trip that I’d be having a lot of time for ogling on. Mr. Buff quickly set about getting us paired
up and on this pairing, I have to wonder in retrospect the phrase “What was I thinking????”

Our middle boy may not be able to see but he is strong as the
proverbial ox. Our oldest boy was a
soccer star and in the prime shape of his life. Our daughter was a track star and again, in superb shape. Our friend is
older than Bob and has terrible arthritis in his hands so no help there; and then there’s Bob and I left.

As it turns out, our daughter Kate paired up
with our oldest son, Jon while Patrick got our friend Paul who took the back
seat and kindly gave Pat the front. (We
later learned that it was because he didn’t want Pat to know that he wasn’t
paddling – however, I have a feeling that Pat knew all along – but no worries there).

So who does that leave as the fearsome twosome – none other
than Bob and Audrey. About this time,
I’m really starting to get cold and looking out at the bay or cove that we were
in, I was beginning to think this was perhaps one of my stupidest ideas
yet. The instructor had assured me up
one side and down the other that people of ALL ages and capabilities could do
this but still that voice of ‘this is insane’ niggled at me.

Finally realizing that I was the only person
not in the kayak, I gave in and got in – thankfully without capsizing Bob.

Next came the tutorial on the capsize scenario (I have to
say that this kind of role playing does not enhance my eagerness to
participate). He basically told us to
spin around after we capsized and try to not drown under the kayak – very
reassuring – especially since I figured we had about 20 minutes tops before we
died of exposure in the water off San Juan Island.

Wow – with all that instruction, I could have kayaked around
the world! At this point, he told us the
plan – we would go out of the bay (darn) and into the Strait but we needed to
stay far enough away from the shore to avoid sharp rocks (again, I’m thrilled). We would go north along the west side of the
island to a certain point and then head back.

What he didn’t mention was that going up we were going against the
current. When we got out of the cove and
into the open water, it was like shoveling snow – it was that heavy to get the
oars up and out of the water and then rotate my wrist.

I had chosen to sit in the back of the kayak simply because
I didn’t want Bob to be sitting behind me making cracks. (I prefer to be the cracker) So off we went lickity split (more like
lickity stupid) as we discovered a very important moment in our married life
that day. We do not row well
together. Who knew?

Much as sometimes when we’re dancing, we cannot quite synchronize our steps because I think I’m trying to match the beat and lead, in this case, sort of the same thing happened. At least I
think that’s it. Instead of going straight as the other people in our party were doing, we were kayaking sideways.

As I said, we had been told that
we were going to this magical turnaround point (where I might add we would get
to partake of a really cool snack – live seaweed – Oh be still my heart!) It’s really not that bad – see the video below.

As I watched my children pull away from us
along with Mr. Buff, all easily cutting through the water like they’d been
kayaking their entire lives…..Bob and I began our sideways trek up the west
side of the island. I believe our ETA
was at least 15-30 minutes later than my kids’. They had eaten their fill of seaweed before we even got into port.

You Can Hear The Orcas Breathe

My pictures from shore next day

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Kayaking is Hard Work!

The trip was not all fun and games either. Bob was constantly turning around in the
kayak (as much as possible anyway) and asking me what the heck I was doing back

“Oh you know – doing my nails –
the usual. What do you THINK I’m doing
back here?”

I actually was soaked to the
skin before we left the cove because I was having a devil of a time with the
oars. Every time I put the oar thing
into the water and brought it through the water, when I lifted it, all the
water ran down the paddle/oar into my sweatshirt and by about 10 times of that,
I was soaked. The drizzle now felt like
icicles hitting my face, and I seriously was trying not to start crying. My wrists were killing me – some carpal
tunnel tour this was!!

As well, to put this into perspective, I suddenly became
very aware that we were in a HUGE body of water way far away from the shore –
and it was drizzling – and it was getting dark!! All hints of bravery long gone, I started to whine. “Why were we going crooked? When are we going to catch up with them? Why don’t you know how to paddle this thing?”

The only thing I couldn’t accuse him of was
not stopping and asking for directions. We could see the rats ahead of us parked at their
buffet of seaweed while we tried valiantly to get there.

Just before we approached the lunch counter, out of the
depths of the sea rose a great creature. A very huge head emerged right beside
our little ship in that massive sea. I
did what anyone else who had wanted a real wildlife experience would do – I
screamed – at the top of my bloody lungs.

I screamed so loud that Bob almost jumped out of the kayak. I honest to God thought we were going to die
right then and wondered how someone would find me at the bottom of the
Strait. Oh yeah, I had a life jacket on
so I’d probably float out to the Pacific where I’d be pecked to death by

Bob jerks around in the kayak of course almost capsizing us
to scream at me “What are you screaming for?” and all I could do was
point. I’m sure he was so excited that
he could barely contain himself when he followed the line to where I was
pointing – but alas it wasn’t a whale but a mere seal.

In my defense, when you are on the SAME LEVEL
pretty much (since your body is under water in the kayak – another thing I
wasn’t thrilled to learn) it looked really scary. I can’t help it if I thought it was some sea
monster or something. He was practically
looking me in the eye!

So after the lecture on how I should really stop screaming
because I’m giving him a heart attack (what about mine?), and my kids howling
hysterically as they watched their special ed parents try and ‘park’ the kayak
to get their meager bites of fresh seaweed, before I even had a chance to
recover, we were headed back. What about the recovery phase?

I have to
say though that I tried really, really hard to pick up the pace – I wanted out
of that blasted kayak so bad I could taste it. I no longer cared about the whales of San Juan Island. I no longer
even cared about having Patrick see them up close and personal. I vowed to buy him a video and be done with
this madness forever! Just get me outta

By now it is full on darkness – it is raining in earnest and
I am soaked to the skin. My arms are
aching and I can barely turn my wrist over. I finally quit paddling at all and pretended by making clunking sounds
on the side of the kayak sometimes if Bob acted like he was suspicious. Hey – if Patrick could row Paul all the way
up and back, I figured Bob could do it too, right?

I’m beginning to think about crying pretty
soon because I have this feeling that we are going to be out on the sea forever
and we are never going to get back in. I
was actually praying that no whales did come up because I have no doubt in my
mind that I would have had a bloody heart attack right there. At least though, I’d have been warm after the heart attack!

Finally the cove comes into view and tears of joy and relief
start to flow. All I can think of is
getting back to the campsite and going to take a $5 shower. I planned on
staying in there for a very long time. I
wanted out of the blasted kayak and I wanted out now.

We maneuvered the boat up to the shore and
Mr. Buff jumped out like he’d not done anything strenuous of course and pulled in his
kayak. I managed to throw myself out of
mine onto the shore and started to sprint for the van when I heard him yell
after me – ‘Hey – where are you going? You have to help carry the kayaks up – you can’t leave until
I’ve loaded them all.’

Again – I paid
for this outing from hell? Slowly I turned and stomped back to the kayak, glaring at
Bob the entire time. Why? If we didn’t have kids, would be probably be doing this? And I guess just
because! I was wet and cranky and I needed a hot shower not to mention
probably a hot toddy!

We hoisted up the
cursed kayak and muscled the stupid thing up the trail to where his kayak
trailer waited and I set my end down with a thunk.

Once in the car, I turned up the heat to full blast and
shivered myself to death on the way back to the campsite 30 minutes away.

All the way back though I have to say
everyone was recounting what a great trip it was and how awesome it was being out
on the sea and paddling against the current. Too bad I didn’t see this as a highlight of the day but rather looked at
the docking as the high point of my day.

Questions Answered

Whale Watching Kayak Tour on San Juan Island

I have to say it was a great experience once it was OVER in my case. I think I’d recommend that anyone thinking about this activity though do the smart thing and go during the day.

I’d also recommend being a silent nonparticipating passenger if you have any kind of arm or upper body issues – hook up with a good rower.

I also recommend reviewing techniques on what to do in a kayak such as safety precautions, rowing techniques, etc. Visit kayakjournaling.com as a great website for tips on kayaking.

No matter what the folks on the tour tell you, this is a high risk activity and it is not for the weak-hearted. However, I think if I’d known more about what to expect, how to dress, and especially how to actually kayak appropriately, I would have done much better.

Also my advice – look out for seals. You can’t imagine how big their heads look if you are right next to them and on the same level – honestly! Anyone would have been scared!

If you are brave, I recommend the whale watching kayak tour. If you are a sissy like this old lady, I recommend going just south of Lime Kiln Point State Park and parking yourself on the wonderful expanse of rocks. Bring binoculars, a blanket or two, some food and just wait.

Every time I’ve gone to that place, I’ve seen the whales. As a matter of fact, after our whale watching kayak tour, we went to that spot several times over that weekend and saw the Orcas every time.

The problem for my family is getting me away from the spot because I will insist every time on staying there in case another pod happens by.

My whale pictures, though far away were all taken by me with a regular Nikon 35 mm camera pointed at the spots where I guessed they might emerge after they went under. I then clicked without looking the moment that they came up. I got lucky a few times.

Again, this was with regular film and way before digital cameras and my Flip video. (Thinking about the possibilities makes me think maybe I could do this tour again!)

All in all, you won’t find a more beautiful spot for a vacation than San Juan Island and you won’t find a more incredible moment in your life than spotting an Orca whale.

Even better, if you sit back and just listen, you can hear them breathe. It echoes in the stillness of the Strait and in that magical sound moment, you might think you have just glimpsed – or heard – a bit of heaven.

See the videos below for a real live up close and personal kayak whale watching tour of San Juan Island – incredible!

The photos above were taken by me as stated.

The photos below are from Sea Quest Expeditions. I obtained written permission from Martine Springer, Expedition Director to use for this hub.

These photos illustrate what it is possible to see on their wonderful whale watching kayak tours, and all kidding aside, it was a great adventure.

For more information, visit their website and book a tour for your next vacation adventure!

Photos courtesy Sea Quest Expeditions (via written permission)

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What you can see
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Cliff fog off San Juan Island
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Pod passing by
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Eagles abound for salmon

Reasons to Sign Up for a Kayaking Tour

Sea Quest Expeditions is a great way to kayak in the San Juan islands – here are some of the reasons why they are so popular:

San Juan islands is a great killer whale zone and where most whale sightings occur in Washington and the Northwest although there are some unusual rare occurrences!
They are the lowest priced kayak tour in the Seattle area
Even if you don’t see the whales, you will see magnificent views of sea cliffs & lighthouses on the western side of the San Juan islands
You will see all different types of wildlife and bounty of the sea such as harbor seals, otters and bald eagles
This is the best route for kayaking with orca whales in the US with 85+ resident killer whales
There is abundant camping sites and hotels, resorts, private homes, and cabins to rent on the smaller, isolated islands and on San Juan Island – it is only a ferry trip away
They have conducted kayak tours in the San Juan Islands since 1989 and have a perfect safety record, the best trained guides, and the newest kayaks & paddling equipment

If I decide I want to do this again (and I’m seriously thinking about it now), I’m signing up with these folks!

show route and directionshide route and directions

Show driving directionswalking directionsbicycling directions with distances in mileskilometers

Friday Harbor San Juan Island –
Friday Harbor, WA, USA
[get directions]

Friday Harbor Ferry Stop – How you arrive on San Juan Island

Lime Kiln Point San Juan Island –
Lime Kiln Point State Park, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
[get directions]

State Park where you can see the whale pods passing by

Seattle Washington –
Seattle, WA, USA
[get directions]

Downtown Seattle for point of reference

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Kaying and Kelp Lunch

It Really Can Happen

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