I heard them before I saw them. Three killer whales cruised the edge of San Juan Island at sunset, dorsal fin to dorsal fin. The heavy thrum of each whale's every sigh—Darth Vader without the menace—threw fists of fine spray three feet in the air. Silhouetted against a pale sky, just a few dozen yards from where I'd stopped to stare, the 25-foot-long, six-ton orcas looked like inky sailboats surging into the night.
Whale-watching along most parts of the Pacific coast requires long, wintry forays through cold mists and choppy seas. But if you want to stand on the beach and watch frolicking orcas in the warm flush of summer and fall, go to where the whales make their summer homes, along the mountain-rimmed archipelago that straddles the western border between the United States and Canada.
Of the three islands between Vancouver Island and mainland Washington that are big enough to host towns—San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez—San Juan is the center of action, both human and cetacean. Within its 55 square miles, this westernmost isle boasts the largest town in the San Juans (the village of Friday Harbor, with its 2,045 citizens) as well as tidy farms, forest-rimmed meadows, and fishable lakes. Most important, of course, to the resident orcas that ply the deep waters of the Haro Strait are the five kinds of salmon coursing through the channel; one killer whale can wolf down more than 200 pounds of fish every day.
Each May, three distinct clans, or pods, of these fish eaters follow spawning salmon to within nibbling distance of the San Juan shore, lingering to feast through September or beyond. The island offers scientists as well as tourists an unrivaled perch for making the sort of repeated observations crucial to understanding whale behavior. Among recent lessons learned: San Juan's three resident pods, led by 80- or 90-year-old grannies, are matrilineal clans, each with its own dialect of squawks and squeals. Young orcas venture beyond the clan briefly to mate, but otherwise swim with Mom for life. And though San Juan's resident pods are strictly fish eaters, that's not true of all killer whales. Stealthy clusters of orcas known as transients periodically pass through the same waters to hunt seals, sea lions, and other whales. Scientists note that although the transients and residents have overlapping territories, they don't mix.
Not so human residents and visitors to the island. San Juan is peppered with artistic entrepreneurs from the mainland who came for the weekend and stayed, patching together odd jobs to survive in an isolated island economy. The result is an inventive delight for tourists: One day, after an hour's fragrant wandering through the fields of the Pelindaba Lavender Farm, I headed into town to a lunch spot that's hard to find, but well worth the trouble. At the back of a local nursery, hidden amid the tree ferns and begonias, the Backdoor Kitchen serves a multiethnic menu. Tuck into your stir-fry near a stand of bamboo or swaying ficus and you may wonder why every nursery doesn't have a café, and every café a nursery.
San Juan has many more treasures. Explore, for example, windswept American Camp at San Juan Island National Historic Park to learn how a hungry pig nearly triggered a war 150 years ago, or visit Roche Harbor, the resort whose historic main lodge has not changed much since Teddy Roosevelt stayed there in 1906.
In Friday Harbor, you'll find museum-quality art by Northwest Native Americans at the Arctic Raven Gallery and a rich trove of local history around the corner at the Griffin Bay Bookstore. Just up the street, the nonprofit Whale Museum posts a daily log of orca sightings, as well as a brief guide to responsible tour companies. Inside the museum, you can eavesdrop on orcas via live audio, listen to humpback recordings, or learn to visually identify local whales by their distinctive saddle patches and by the shape of their dorsal fins (hint: Ruffles has ridges).
Still, nothing beats a seaside encounter with the live creatures, preferably in the late afternoon. "The light is beautiful then, and we've already been out on morning runs, so we have a good idea of where to find the local pods," explained Jim Maya, captain for Maya Whale Watch Charters.
We saw orcas within 10 minutes of boarding Maya's six-passenger boat. Members of J-pod, the most gregarious of the residents, cavorted a hundred yards away, rising out of the water in circusworthy "spy-hops" to get a better look at us. They slapped their flukes against the surface, did barrel rolls, and raced each other. "Just general horsing around," Maya said.
I would have been happy there for hours, but just then, a scratchy radio call came in from a Canadian tour boat a few miles away; it was a friend of Maya's who works out of nearby Victoria. He'd just spotted 50 orcas he didn't recognize—a shy tribe of fish-eating "offshores." We zoomed near his boat and turned off the engine.
After a minute, we saw them too: dozens of black-and-white animals pulsing past us through the water in shallow leaps. They sliced the waves in parallel formation, a long, dancing line of proud dorsal fins, each fin five or six feet high. "A wall of whales," somebody said as they passed, but to me they seemed a graceful chorus line of husky June Taylor dancers wowing the crowd.
Nobody talked. We stared. The only sounds were water sloshing against the hull and that deep, reverberating sigh of each whale. Finally, a Canadian voice crackled over the radio. "Wow. Eh?"
Photography by Lea Andrade
This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Phone numbers are area code 360 unless noted. Pick up AAA's Oregon & Washington TourBook and map.
Two quiet blocks from the Friday Harbor ferry, Harrison House Suites, (800) 407-7933, offers homey apartments, free bike loans, and fresh flowers and organic produce from the owner's garden. Forest fans may prefer the midisland Lakedale Resort, (800) 617-2267, where thick stands of madrona and Douglas fir shelter a new craftsman lodge, as well as a campground and a few log cabins. Or try Roche Harbor Village, (800) 451-8910, a 19th-century company town for limekiln workers that's now a resort and marina with many lodging options, cheap to fancy. Spy on whales and catch a sunset view of the Olympic Mountains at the more remote Olympic Lights Bed & Breakfast, (888) 211-6195, a Victorian farmhouse surrounded by open meadow on San Juan's southern edge, near American Camp.
For fresh gourmet fare with a harbor view, reserve a table at the Place Next to the Ferry, 378-8707, or Friday Harbor House, 378-8455, two casually elegant local favorites. Try the island's nationally prized Westcott Bay oysters at the romantic and woodsy Duck Soup Inn, 378-4878, a culinary gem between Roche and Friday harbors. For tasty, affordable lunches in Friday Harbor, look to Thai Kitchen, 378-1917, the Backdoor Kitchen, 378-9540, or the Market Chef Deli, 378-4546.
Things to See and Do
Lime Kiln Point on the island's west side is the best spot to spy whales from shore. To get closer, try Maya's Whale Watch Charters, 378-7996, or Salish Sea Charters, 378-8555. Both are based in Snug Harbor (near the orcas' favorite feasting spots). Or snag a list of responsible tour companies at Friday Harbor's info-packed Whale Museum, www.whalemuseum.com. Other highlights include the San Juan Island National Historic Park, www.nps.gov/sajh; Pelindaba Lavender Farm, www.pelindaba.com; Arctic Raven Gallery, www.arcticravengallery.com; and Griffin Bay Bookstore, (360) 378-5511. For more information, including ferry schedules and last-minute floatplane bargains, scour the San Juan Web-based directory, www.friday-harbor.net.