Note: Some tour providers on this list may have limited or ceased operations due to COVID-19. Check with your tour operator about availability before you book.
The water off the northwestern coast of Washington affords ample opportunities to see orcas and other whales, as well a wide array of additional wildlife. The following tours, which U.S. News determined to be the best based on the input of both travel experts and tour-takers, will take you to the ideal locations for viewing. Not all of these trips leave from the Seattle area, and some may be best suited for daytrips. Most depart from the San Juan Islands, which sits north of Seattle. To get to the islands, you’ll need to drive about 90 miles to Anacortes, then jump on a ferry to the islands. Whale watching in this area generally occurs from mid-April through early October, with peak viewing opportunities from June to September.
Note: Some whale watching trips have minimum age requirements.
Cruise at speeds up to 50 mph (depending on the boat), as you search for whales, porpoises, seals, otters, birds and more. Along with the sights, passengers praise the funny, knowledgeable crew. Tours depart daily from Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands) at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. June through August, and at 1 p.m. in spring (mid-April through May) and fall (September to mid-November). Tickets cost approximately $100 for adults, $80 for youths 13 to 17 and $60 for children 3 to 12 (with no charge for infants). Custom and private excursions are available all year long with multiple departure points from both mainland locations and other islands. Outer Island Excursions also conducts charter fishing trips and kayak excursions.
San Juan Safaris – Classic Whale Watch and Wildlife Tour
This tour concentrates on the resident killer whales (aka orcas) that spend half the year around the San Juan Islands (though other animals are likely to be seen as well). The onboard naturalists win praise from reviewers for their knowledge and amiability. Boats depart daily from Friday Harbor near the ferry landing on San Juan Island at 1 p.m. from early March through October. In addition, sunset tours that depart at 5:30 p.m. are available from late May into mid-August. Tours last from three to four hours. Tickets start at $119 for adults and $89 for children 2 to 12. (Infants ride for free.) Prices include use of gear, such as binoculars and jackets.
Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours – Western Explorer II
The San Juan Islands afford ample opportunities to see a variety of whale species, including orcas, humpbacks and minke whales, as well as porpoises, sea lions, seals and various birds. On Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours, captains double as guides, and passengers typically find them very informative and friendly. The company offers two iterations of its Western Explorer II tour, which takes up to 25 travelers on an aluminum boat at speeds up to 40 mph. The standard trip lasts 2 ½ to three hours; it’s available April through October at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tickets cost around $140 for adults and $120 for children 7 to 12. The extended version, which lasts up to 5 ½ hours, occurs from mid-April to mid-August beginning at 3 p.m. daily. Tickets for the longer trip cost about $260 per person, and participants must be at least 11 years old. Boats depart from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Private charters are also available.
Enjoy a close-range view of the marine life that surrounds the San Juan Islands on one of these full- and half-day kayak outings. In addition to orca, gray and humpback whales, porpoises and sea lions can also be observed in this area. Reviewers consistently call the guides on these trips exceptionally knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna. However, others express disappointment they did not see more whales. Trips take place from March through October. Full-day trips last about six hours; half-day trips generally run three to four hours (including travel time to the launch point and instruction in kayak use). The shorter outings start at 8 a.m. and cost about $90; the longer ones commence at 10:30 a.m. and cost about $100. Sea Quest Expeditions also offers multiday trips combining kayaking and camping in Washington, as well as tours operating from Alaska and Mexico.
Puget Sound Express – Guaranteed Whale Watching Tours
Departing from Edmonds (about 20 miles north of Seattle), these four- to five-hour boat rides take passengers to the San Juan Islands to see the whales and other sea creatures that inhabit the Salish Sea. Puget Sound Express’ boats feature both indoor seating and outdoor viewing decks, as well as a cafe that sells snacks, which tour-takers tend to appreciate. Passengers describe the crew as knowledgeable and personable. Tours are offered from the end of April through December. You can expect to depart at 9:30 or 11:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m., but note that these times will vary with the season. These trips are suitable for all ages, and tickets start at $135 for adults and $95 for children 2 to 10. (Infants cruise free of charge.) Specialty tours focusing on gray whales are also available and depart in March and April.
Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching
Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching is ideal for nature lovers, as the company takes a “whole ecosystem approach” to its outings – meaning you’ll learn about more than just whales on this excursion. Tours, which are available year-round, explore the Salish Sea in the vicinity of Seattle and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Travelers typically enjoy the ample wildlife sightings and appreciate the friendly, knowledgeable crew. Boats leave from two San Juan Island locations: downtown Friday Harbor near the Washington State Ferry landing and Snug Harbor Resort on the island’s west side. Tours vary in length and are priced accordingly: starting at $149 for three-hour tours, $199 for four-hour tours, $279 for six-hour tours and $299 for seven-hour trips. Multiple start times are available and vary by season. Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching specializes in small-group outings, and the number of participants may be no more than six or 16, depending on the particular excursion and the customized vessel used. Private charters are also offered.
San Juan Excursions – Whale Watching Tours
Cruise on a converted U.S. Navy search and rescue boat on this three- to four-hour journey amid the San Juan Islands. Tourgoers praise the crews for being exceptionally accommodating and dedicated to finding whales. The 65-foot boat, which features both indoor and outdoor viewing areas, leaves from near Friday Harbor’s ferry terminal at 12:30 or 1:30 p.m. daily from early April through mid-October. Tickets cost about $120 for adults, $110 for children 3 to 12, and $90 for infants. If no orcas are spotted on a given trip, tour-takers receive free passes for a second chance at seeing the whales on a different tour. Private charters and kayak tours are also available.
Observe the marine life of the Salish Sea on this three-hour small group tour that’s limited to six passengers. The captain also serves as the guide and photographer, and tour-takers consistently praise his professionalism, passion and knowledge. Tours are available year-round departing from Friday Harbor at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. from May through September and at 1 p.m. from October through April. Additional 6 p.m. departures may be available from May through August. Tickets cost about $120 for adults and $100 for children. The price includes photographs the captain will email after the trip, which passengers tend to appreciate. Private tours, as well as tours focused on bird-watching, are also offered.
Rather than using motorized vessels, this tour has whale watchers paddle themselves in kayaks. Past patrons describe the observable wildlife as abundant and the guides as personable and entertaining. What’s more, no prior kayaking experience is necessary. Tours are available daily from April through October. Tickets start at $119 and the price includes use of all kayaking gear as well as round-trip transportation from Crystal Seas Kayaking’s office in Friday Harbor to the starting point at Snug Harbor. Trips depart several times a day with meet-ups starting at 8 or 9 a.m. and continuing hourly until about 5 or 6 p.m. (exact departures vary by season).
Acquaint yourself with orca, humpback and minke whales, among many other creatures of the land and sea, on this tour around the San Juan Islands. The 42-foot boat used on this family-friendly outing can accommodate up to 24 passengers and features a 360-degree viewing deck. Tour-takers consistently call the naturalists/guides informative, professional and amusing. Three- to four-hour trips depart from San Juan Island’s Roche Harbor at 1 p.m. daily from the end of March through October. Tickets cost about $120 for adults, $90 for children 2 to 12, and are free for infants. San Juan Outfitters also conducts kayaking tours, some of which last multiple days.