Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sea kayaking with orcas in the San Juan Islands

As a child I wanted to be a marine biologist, working with dolphins.  Still as an adult, I'm fascinated by waterways and water creatures.  When we vacationed on Maui a few years ago, I had the opportunity to paddle out on the ocean in a Hawaiian outrigger canoe.  It was humpback whale season, and we were so lucky that a mama humpback and her calf came upon our canoe.  She breached, slapped her tail, and gave us a show.  When she went underwater with her calf, they swam right under our canoe and my friend and I were able to stick our heads in the water to watch them.  It was an unforgettable experience, one that I will have to relive via the pictures in my mind, because unfortunately my waterproof camera was back in the hotel room.  (Yes, I'm still furious at myself for that.)

Humpback whale image via Wikipedia

When I had the opportunity to view orca whales up close while vacationing in the Upper Northwest, I jumped on it.  We prefer to avoid guided tours with a lot of other tourists when possible, so instead of booking a whale watching boat excursion, I signed my not-so-active family up for a 6-hour sea kayaking adventure!

We got up super-early on our last morning in Vancouver and headed south, back across the US border, to Anacortes, Washington.  We hopped on a Washington State Ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, our meetup point for our kayak group.


We traveled across the island to our launch cove.  While unloading the kayaks at the beach, someone spotted orcas just outside the cove.  Everyone scrambled up a hill to see them from above, jealous of the other kayakers who had just launched and were able to see them up close and personal.  Since there's no guarantee that you'll get to see orcas at all, we were a bit nervous that would be the end of our sightings for the day.

By lunch time, we had seen a harbor seal off in the far distance, plus lots of jellyfish in a kelp bed that we paddled through.

Rather than paddling around it, we went right through this big kelp bed

Me holding a cross jellyfish in the kelp bed

The Teen wringing the sea water out of his socks during our lunch stop

Exhausted from all the paddling, we were all having a restful lunch break when our guide received a call that there were orcas coming our way.  All nine of us packed up our supplies, got our gear back on, and hopped back into our kayaks as quickly as possible.  From that point on, we were in orca bliss for the remainder of the tour.

We had to stay at least 200 yards away from the orcas, so when we reached that distance, we would "raft up," which means our four kayaks would pull up alongside each other and hold on to one another to create a big "raft."  At one point, there were orcas to our left, our right, and straight in front of us, and it was hard to choose where to look.  Once the orcas passed us, we'd paddle back toward our launch beach until we spotted another pod.  The multiple experiences replenished our energy levels when we were so depleted from hours of paddling.  We also didn't mind too much when it started raining on us with about an hour left to go. After all, when the raindrops are falling as you're watching orcas play all around you, you tend to forget about the annoying rain!

Not only were we treated with sea animal sightings, but we spotted a couple Columbia Black-Tailed Deer and both a young and a mature bald eagle on the shore.

Bald eagle perched upon a treetop along the San Juan Island coast

If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend trying a DIY whale-watching adventure.  Don't just jump on a power boat with a bunch of other tourists and let the motor do the work -- get out there and propel yourself via kayak!  There are tons of companies that specialize in whale-watching tours in the San Juan Islands, whether by plane, boat or sea kayak.  The company we kayaked with is Sea Quest Expeditions, and I was very pleased with the entire experience, including our guide Nigel's knowledge of the animals and his care to be cautious that we not impede upon their natural territory.

Okay, I'm dying to know if any of you have been sea kayaking, or have gone on some sort of whale-watching or other sea life tour.  Please share!



  1. wow! what an adventure! Great memories you made, and love that you captured them with pictures!
    thanks for sharing with us.
    kayak? me? never have, and probably never will.

  2. Totally awesome...never seen anything like it.


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