Cross Whale Watching Off Your Summer Bucket List

Until recently, we thought our only option for a whale-watching experience was to drive north to outfitters in Edmonds or Anacortes, which is not an easy task for Seattleites with or without access to vehicles. Enter, the San Juan Clipper.

The San Juan Clipper leaves Seattle for Friday Harbor. (Photo credit: Clipper Vacations)

Departure from Pier 69 at Seattle’s Waterfront means that you don’t have to travel very far to get to the pier for your excursion. There, the on-site Clipper Café offers an assortment of breakfast bites from sandwiches to pastries accompanied by coffee from Caffe Vita, a must for a 7:45 am check-in time.

Upon boarding, claim a coveted seat along a window with a table. While settling in, send one person to the concession stand to grab free motion sickness tablets for your group to consume prior to departure, just in case the ship encounters any unexpected rough waters. Then, pending the weather (it is getting warmer!), don some windbreakers, beanies, and gloves to brave the high winds on the vessel’s upper, outdoor deck that offers 360-degree views for Instagram-worthy pictures of the Emerald City’s skyline. Rent binoculars for $10 a day to better scan for bald eagles, seabirds, and marine mammals from this vantage point.

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The San Juan Clipper’s open deck offers 360-degree views. (Photo credit: Clipper Vacations)

You’re welcome to bring food onboard and if you don’t, that’s okay too. The concession stand is well-stocked with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, snacks, and lunch items like fruit and cheese plates, soups, and hot dogs. They have a limited amount of food so we suggest packing your party’s lunches and snacks to ensure all hungry bellies are full. Note they only accept credit cards.

A young Seattle couple celebrating their 5th anniversary passes the time with a coloring book and deck of cards, both available for purchase onboard. (Photo credit: Erika Almanza Brown)

A naturalist expert, Lauren Ryan-Booth, was on hand throughout the journey to offer facts about marine mammals and alert passengers of notable landmarks or wildlife over the ship’s intercom. When discussing Clipper Vacations’ role in whale conservation, she tells us, “many people don’t know the issues these whales are facing and what is impacting them prior to our tours,” adding, “therefore, whale watching is important because people learn about whales and their behaviors as well as the issues affecting them.”

Ryan-Booth also points out that Clipper Vacations is a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), an organization of 32 whale watching and ecotourism businesses, who authored and follow self-imposed guidelines to lessen the impact on marine life, such as minimizing underwater noise, establishing distance from marine mammals, and limiting boat numbers and time spent viewing wildlife. (Read more about PWWA here.)

Naturalist expert Lauren Ryan-Booth chats with a San Juan Clipper passenger. (Photo credit: Erika Almanza Brown)

Moreover, Ryan-Booth explains the two different types of orca whales that frequent the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands, both possible to see during a whale tour depending on season, weather, and their food source’s location. The Southern Resident Killer Whales return to the Salish Sea for four to seven months at a time in search of Chinook salmon returning to spawn, but because these orca whales are struggling to find and consume enough salmon, many are starving. The second type of orcas frequently seen in the Salish Sea are the Bigg’s or “transient” whales, which feast on mammals like sea lions and sometimes even whales, and thus are thriving more than their salmon-eating counterparts.

Whale fluke
(Photo credit: Clipper Vacations)

Upon arriving at Friday Harbor around noon, the vessel retrieves passengers at the port before continuing on to the Whale & Sealife Search, the best opportunity to see whales, terrestrial mammals like Columbia blacktail deer grazing on the island, and other marine mammals like sea otters and sea lions. Should you wish to extend your afternoon on the island in lieu of the excursion, disembark here, but if you plan to stay for the wildlife tour, stay on board. In the highly unlikely event that you do not see any whales, Clipper Vacations’ generous “whale sighting guarantee” gifts you another excursion free of charge.

Stellar sea lions sunbathe off the coast of San Juan Island. (Photo credit: Erika Almanza Brown)

We visited with San Juan Clipper Captain, Jason Mihok, who has been at the helm for the last twenty years and is still excited for each trip because he always sees something new.  “It’s a beautiful trip, leaving everything behind you and going to the top chain islands of the world where people can see how the geology changes from the dry bluffs of Whidbey Island to the salt islands,” continuing, “and it’s just a short boat ride away.”

Port of Friday Harbor. (Photo credit: Erika Almanza Brown)

After the wildlife segment of the tour, we enjoyed a two-hour stopover at Friday Harbor. Travelers interested in learning more about orcas can walk to The Center for Whale Research’s Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center, a volunteer-led space dedicated to informing the public about the Southern Resident orcas, and The Whale Museum for its exhibits, artwork, and artifacts like real whale skeletons. (Tip: Keep The Explorer Guidebook the expert naturalist hands you onboard because inside is a half-off admission to The Whale Museum).

Passengers disembark the San Juan Clipper at Friday Harbor. (Photo credit: Erika Almanza Brown)

Just up the hill from the port on Spring Street are boutiques selling gifts, apparel, and chocolates. Griffin Bay Bookstore offers new reading material, but just off the beaten path towards A Street is Serendipity the Used Book Place, where shelves overflow with a surprisingly organized inventory. If you are specifically looking for Friday Harbor souvenirs, we suggest stopping inside Sandpebble for all things celebrating the Pacific Northwest, especially those trucker hats.

Sandpebble provides your pick of PNW goods on Friday Harbor’s Spring Street. (Photo credit: Erika Almanza Brown)

Since departure is at 5:15 pm, you will have to decide on eating an early supper on the island or ordering carry-out for dinner on the boat later. If you can manage it, we recommend a meal and brew at the San Juan Island Brewing Company, about three blocks from the port, and opt to sit outside for a round of corn hole on the lawn. If a 4:00 pm meal time is too early for you, we suggest purchasing a made-to-order, hot or cold sandwich or “sandwich-in-a-bowl” (basically all the sandwich fixin’s sans bread) for a low-carb and gluten-free option at Spring Street Deli to go. Consider grabbing a menu when first walking through Spring Street and call in your order before boarding the vessel. While there may be some remaining food items left on the boat to Seattle for $1 a pop, you may not want to risk the chance that there is not enough for purchase.

San Juan Island Brewery offers outdoor seating. (Photo credit: Erika Almanza Brown)

End your day with what is sure to be an epic sunset over the Olympic Mountains on your return trip to Seattle. Tag us @seattleitemag to share pictures of your excursion. Happy summer!

A gray whale swims in the Sound at sunset. (Photo credit: Erika Almanza Brown)

San Juan Clipper

Seattle Clipper Terminal
1701 Alaskan Way, Pier 69
Seattle, WA 98121

(206) 448-5000

Visit FAQs for more information.