The best time to see Killer whales in the San Juan Islands
This is one of the most asked questions that we get! There is a reason so many people come from all over the world to the San Juan Islands (north of Seattle) to catch a glimpse of the world’s top ocean predator. But did you know we have two different eco-types of Killer whales we see regularly? Many people know about the Endangered group of Southern Resident Killer Whales (J,K,L pods) that come into the area looking for their preferred prey, Chinook salmon. Don’t let the name fool you too much, “resident” does not mean they live here all the time. They either stay in the area feeding on salmon, or if there isn’t an abundant run at the time, they have to head out to the Pacific ocean to look for more. We generally anticipate members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale community to be in the area most of the time from mid-May through mid-October. That being said, it very much depends on the health of the salmon runs. If there isn’t enough food here, they aren’t going to stay. If there is food, they tend to stick around. Chinook salmon has been reduced 90% here and each year sightings can differ depending on the food availability.
The other eco-type we have are called Bigg’s Killer whales (named after the pioneer researcher Mike Bigg) previously known as “transient” Killer whales. Bigg’s Killer whales do not eat fish at all. These orcas are feeding on the variety of marine mammals in the region, such as Steller sea lions, Harbor seals, Harbor porpoise, and Dall’s porpoise. They do not socialize or interbreed with the Southern Residents either. These orcas tend to be in smaller groups to keep a low profile as their prey is more weary than salmon. We do tend to see this type more in spring and in fall, but truly we could find them any day of the year. Last year we had them right out our office window in Friday Harbor!
So, back to the question: When is the best time to see Killer whales in the San Juan Islands? Generally speaking, mid-May through mid-October. However, we can, and certainly do, see them anytime of the year. We’ve been very fortunate to have had several encounters this spring already! Humpback whales are also making a comeback to the region and we’ve had several encounters with these giant baleen whales too! Truth is, the Salish sea has so much wonderful wildlife to see and anytime you can get out on the water is time well spent.