While Seattle is defined by stunning mountain views, the Puget Sound is the heart and soul of the city. An entire delicate ecosystem exists out in the waters, and below the murky depths, you’ll find creatures large and small battling to survive, with the largest being the region’s whales and dolphins.
The whales around Puget Sound are currently battling the impact of pollution and climate change on our oceans and waterways. While all whales in the region are dealing with this problem, the hardest hit in the Puget Sound are the orcas, also known as killer whales, although they’re technically in the dolphin family. Their food sources are now less prevalent, newborns have been struggling to survive, and the general health of the whales has become a concern reaching the way up to the governor’s office.
While plans are in the works to continue to improve their habitat, there’s a great amount of concern for their future. By getting to know the whales of the region, we have a better chance at understanding our impact on the Puget Sound and the animals that call it home.
Types of whales in the Puget Sound
Most Seattle residents will consider it lucky to spot a single whale while in town, but those with an eye to the water may see multiple whales each year. There are seven species of whales and dolphins that frequent the Puget Sound and Salish Sea (the waters that run up to the west of Vancouver Island): orcas, transient orcas, gray whales, humpback whales, minkes, fin whales, pacific white-sided dolphins, and pseudorcas.
Minke, humpback, and orcas are commonly seen between May and October, while gray whales are common in March and April as they head north for the summer.
Where to see whales near (and near-ish) Seattle
Museums and aquariums
At the UW campus, the Burke Museum is a good place to learn about not just the region’s history, but a little about the area’s whales too. At Burke, you can learn about the whales of the Pacific Northwest through their exhibits, programs, and even with educational materials for classroom use. Also in town is the Seattle Aquarium, where you not only gain a wealth of knowledge about the underwater world a few steps away, but also a chance to read about and hear the orcas of the Puget Sound.
While these two spots are great for Seattle residents, The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor has been delighting and educating visitor since it opened in 1979. The museum, a must see for before or after a whale watching tour on the island, strives to promote stewardship of whales and the Salish Sea ecosystem through education and research.
Follow whales online
The absolute best way to see which whales are nearby is to follow the Orca Network across their social media platforms and their website. On its Facebook page, Twitter feed, and whale sighting page, you’ll be able to see the latest whale activity in the region, including where people spotted the whales—and you just might be able to get out quick enough to see a nearby whale for yourself from the nearest beach. The network even offers whale watching get-togethers and a ton of great information on everything you hope to know about the region’s orca population.
If you would like to listen live to the orcas in the Puget Sound, visit orcasound.net for a livestream.
Spotting whales from land
Once you have confirmation that whales are in the area, there are a handful of local beaches and water access points to possibly catch a glimpse of them. When heading to the beach or an overlook to scour the seas for whales, make sure you pack a pair of binoculars and your patience with you.
The most popular place to go to spot whales is Alki Beach, where you’ll have great beach access and miles of water to view. Golden Gardens and beach at Discovery Park are two more great locations to see whales when they’re in the Seattle area.
Out of town, Point Defiance in Tacoma is one of the better locations to see whales throughout the year. Point Robinson on Vashon Island are also great options.
These are by no means the only spots to see whales from the shore. In Washington State, there are 46 sites that are designated whale watching areas, called the Whale Trail. Each spot is beautiful in its own right, giving you a glimpse of Washington’s marine life nearly every weekend of the year.
Watching whales by boat
Boat trips can be a great way to see whales and orcas, provided the trip is carried out responsibly. After boat noise and disturbance were identified as factors in the decline of orcas, new regulations were passed in 2019 prohibiting watercraft from going within 200 yards of orcas and from parking within an orca path.
From Seattle, you have a few options for responsible whale-watching tours. One of the local favorites is the Puget Sound Express, which has been operating for 34 years. The company guarantees that you will see a whale on your tour, and if you don’t, it comps another trip.
Another option from Seattle is the San Juan Clipper. Leaving Seattle and heading to the San Juan Islands, the mecca of whale watching in the Pacific Northwest, this whale-watching tour also guarantees whale sightings and even gives you enough time to explore the town of Friday Harbor and their Whale Museum.
If booking a trip on a whale-watching tour isn’t of interest or not in your budget, you can still possibly see whales by riding the Washington State Ferry system. By using the Orca Network to monitor where the whales are, you can then jump on the ferry to see them. Your best chances for orca sightings on the ferry are between October and February on the Bainbridge, Bremerton, Vashon, Coupeville and Edmonds runs.
Watching whales by air and sea
Kenmore Air’s Scenic Flight and Whale Watching Boat Tour is the ultimate whale-watching trip out of Seattle. From March through October, the full day package includes a 45 minute flight on a seaplane, leaving from Lake Union and heading to Friday Harbor, where San Juan Safaris will give you three-hour, naturalist-led cruise with what the company says is a 90 percent chance of seeing whales. After the tour, hop back on the seaplane and return to Lake Union. Few trips that show off the beauty of the Pacific Northwest on a sunny day as well this one, with views of the city, Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, and even Mount Baker.
How to see whales in the San Juan Islands
Washington is blessed with ridiculous natural beauty that is pretty easy to access—like the San Juan Islands. The San Juans offer the very best way to see whales in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea. If you take a car and ferry trip to Friday Harbor, you’ll have the opportunity to partake in numerous whale watching and wildlife tours, either by tour boat or kayak. A full list of tour options, as well as dining and lodging information can be found on the Visit San Juan Islands website.
If a tour is too much or you prefer to go self-guided, one of the best whale watching spots in the world is Lime Kiln Point State Park. This destination is on the western side of San Juan Island and gives you unrivaled views in the whale-friendly waters of the Salish Sea. If you find yourself with a car on San Juan Island, do not miss a chance to swing out to the park—an orca pod could swim right by you.