One of the many reasons why I love living in Seattle is the chance to see whales during certain times of the year. Although it does make me laugh when my out-of-town guests think we’ll see whales anytime we’re on the water, it is true that you have a higher chance of seeing them during the spring and summer. That’s why so many people jump on the opportunity to go on whale watching tours in Seattle and experience this for themselves.
As someone who has done plenty of whale watching in Seattle, the sight of a giant whale jumping out of the water never gets old. I still remember the first time I ever saw an Orca fin when I was on a boat by San Juan Island, and it was magical.
Whale season in Seattle only happens part of the year, so you’ll have to plan accordingly to make sure you don’t miss out on your whale watching. There are certain times to see Orca whales vs. grey whales, but I’ll make sure to answer all your questions, so you know exactly when to go.
In this article, I’ll share with you why this area is the ultimate destination for Seattle whale watching tours, what to expect on your adventure, and some insider tips to make the most of your trip.
Best Time to Whale Watch in Seattle
The last thing you want to do is visit Seattle for 3 days for a whale-watching vacation, only to find out it’s not the migration season. That said, the migration patterns of each whale species in the Pacific Northwest aren’t all the same.
So, depending on what you want to see, here’s all the information you need to know about each whale’s migration pattern and the best time to see whales in Seattle.
Best Time to See Orcas in Seattle
You can see orcas in Seattle year-round, there are specific best times to go whale watching in Seattle. Although they are native to the Pacific Northwest waters, your best chance to see them in action is in late spring through summer, from May to September. That’s why looking for whales is one of the best things to do in Seattle in the spring.
What makes this such a tremendous orca-spotting opportunity and, ultimately, a fantastic summer thing to do in Seattle? This is around the time the salmon run occurs in and around Seattle. So you’re almost guaranteed to see these majestic giants skillfully hunting in their pods.
Salmon — specifically Chinook salmon — is their main food source, but mammal-eating orcas also visit the Salish Sea during this time. So, in other words, if you want to see orcas breaching, tail lobbing, and spy-hopping, visiting in summer is a fantastic idea.
Top Tip: You can also see solo traveler’s like minke whales during this time, but you’re likely to hear them as they have one of the loudest calls in the whale world.
Best Time to See Gray Whales in Seattle
Like the change of the season, gray whales tend to mark the shift from winter to spring in Washington. As they travel north, these 35-ton ocean dwellers are most frequent in the Seattle region between March and May.
Seattle is a pit spot for these whales, as they migrate towards Camano Island and Whidbey Island to feed on ghost shrimp. You’re also more likely to see male gray whales, as they visit these waters annually.
What happens to the females? They visit every two years as they skip Puget Sound on their way to the Bering Sea when they have their calves with them. Despite this, you’re still likely to see gray whales, as they come right up to the beach during high tide to feed, so get ready to be amazed.
While it tends to rain during this time of year, it’s still a perfect rainy day activity in Seattle, as most boats have a covered indoor area you can stay under until you spot the whales.
Best Time to See Humpback Whales in Seattle
Once a rarity, the humpback whale is now becoming an increasingly popular sight within the Seattle waters. This is mainly due to the population increase from 1,600 to 21,000 since whale hunting was banned in 1966, but it’s still important to know the right time to go for certain whales during Seattle whale watching season.
They’re also becoming increasingly more common as their primary food source — spawning herring — is abundant between May and September. These are the largest whales to visit the Salish Sea, weighing in at 40 tons, and are most noticeable from their mighty breaches.
You’re also most likely to see the art of bubble feeding with humpbacks, as they regularly team up to feast on herrings.
What To Pack For Whale Watching in Seattle
Now, there are some essential things you need to pack to make your whale-watching experience smooth sailing. Whether you’re packing for a road trip, or live in Seattle, here are some essentials you’ll need to bring.
Motion Sickness Pills
All whale watching tours in Seattle take place in the ocean; if there’s one thing you can’t avoid, it’s a rocking boat. If you’re susceptible to motion sickness, it’s a good idea to bring some medication to keep your breakfast down. Unfortunately, I always get sick when I’m on the water, so these are the top thing I pack and take before I even get on the boat.
Get your motion sickness pills here.
Although you’ll get close to these incredible creatures, sometimes some sightings are farther away than you’d like. Make sure you don’t miss a thing and bring a good pair of binoculars. Some tours offer binoculars to rent, but rather avoid the hassle and just bring a pair.
Get your binoculars here.
If you’re anything like myself, you’ll want to capture every moment in vivid detail, from breaching whales to epic orca hunts. Although phone cameras nowadays are good, having a quality camera is a step above the rest. It’s definitely one of the best photo spots in Seattle, with the ocean and mountains or island in the background.
Get your camera here.
Although the whale watching season falls between spring and fall, it gets deceptively cooler on the water than inland. You’ll dress warmly, with jerseys, gloves, long pants, the whole works. That said, it will heat up a bit as the day goes by, so also have some lighter clothes underneath.
Hat and Sunscreen
The Pacific Northwest sun is glorious but harsh, as heat stroke and sunburn are always possible. To avoid this, bringing a wide-brim hat and sunscreen is a great idea to protect yourself and have an all-around fantastic time on the open ocean.
Get your wide-brim hat here, and get your sunscreen here.
5 Best Whale Watching Tours in Seattle
Now that all the minor details are out of the way, it’s time to dive – just like a whale – straight into the best whale watching tours in Seattle.
1. Seattle Gray Whale Watching Tour
Company Name: FRS Clipper
Meeting Point: 2701 Alaskan Way, Seattle, WA 98121, USA
Tour Length: 3 hours
Tour Pricing: $94 per person
The tour’s meeting point is downtown on the Seattle waterfront (where you’ll find some of the best things to do in Seattle). Jump aboard one of the FRS Clipper charters, where three mesmerizing viewing decks await.
As you sail through the open ocean, you’ll pass Bainbridge Island and the iconic North Kitsap Heritage Park. These are just some fantastic scenic spots, but the real treat will be the breaching and tail-flapping gray whales at Whidbey Island. I’ve personally seen whales multiple times around Whidbey, so I think this is one of the best spots for Seattle orca whale watching.
As you pass through Puget Sound, you’ll hear the sounds of these awe-inspiring animals and experience their sheer power as they make waves that rock the boat. As you meander through the water, you’ll see the halfway stop at Coupeville, one of the oldest towns in Washington.
You’ll have two hours to explore the sights of this unforgettable town and grab a bite to eat before the water’s once again. The boat will slowly pass Whidbey Island again, where you’ll have even more opportunities to see gray whales and orcas wading through the water.
This tour is the perfect Seattle date idea, and after, you can visit one of the many waterfront restaurants to try some famous food in Seattle that we’re known for.
There are also plenty of places to buy Seattle souvenirs around the waterfront if you’re from out of town, as well as beautiful sights such as the ferries going across the water.
This is also the shortest whale-watching tour in Seattle on the list, so might be ideal if you only have one day in Seattle but really want to see whales.
Note: This tour only sails on Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 am between mid-March to May.
Click here to get your gray whale-watching ticket.
2. Half-Day Seattle Whale-Watching Tour
Company Name: FRS Clipper
Meeting Point: 2701 Alaskan Way, Seattle, WA 98121, USA
Tour Length: 5 hours
Tour Pricing: $137 per person
The first tour was dedicated to gray whales. On the other hand, this whale tour in Seattle by the same company takes place daily from May to October and helps you search for all whale types in the region.
You’ll begin at Pier 69 near downtown Seattle, where your charter will head north toward Puget Sound. As you sail through the Salish Sea, listen to your onboard naturalist as they point out key details about the region’s ecosystem.
You’ll learn everything from the vegetation that grows in the nearby national parks to the diverse wildlife that blesses the region’s seas. The onboard naturalist will keep an eye out for whales, but it’s also a good idea to keep your eyes peeled.
For five hours, you’ll sail through Puget Sound past Whidbey Island and other surrounding islands. You’ll be able to see everything from hunting orcas to the mighty humpback whale and even the smaller but equally impressive minke whale. I’ve personally been on this and can say it provides some of the best whale watching in Seattle.
This is an experience you’ll be photographing nonstop.
Click here to get your half-day whale-watching ticket.
3. Orcas Island Whale Watching
Company Name: Outer Island Excursions
Meeting Point: 8368 Orcas Rd, Eastsound, WA 98245, USA
Tour Length: 3 hours 30 minutes
Tour Pricing: $112 per person
This is one of those fantastic day trips from Seattle that’s well worth the three-hour drive (100 miles). The tour departs from Orcas Island — part of the San Juan Islands — daily from late May to mid-September at 10:30 am each morning.
You’ll board the Blackfish Fleet within an open top and front viewing deck. As you set sail, keep a lookout for the resident killer whales from which the island gets its name. Aside from orcas, you can also see other wildlife on the island, like seals, otters, sea lions, and porpoises. This is why it’s one of the most popular things to do on Orcas Island, as the location is stunning.
That’s not what you’re here to see, though, right? You’re looking for the humpback and minke whales that visit Puget Sound each year, and that’s exactly what you’ll be able to admire.
The tour ventures through the waters of Lopez Island, San Juan, Waldron, Lummi, and Coupeville. As you pass each island, your naturalist guide will point out all the wildlife you see along the way, including details about each whale species’ behavior.
Note: This tour is not wheelchair accessible.
Click here to get your Orcas Island whale-watching ticket.
4. Whale Watching From Friday Harbor
Company Name: San Juan Safaris
Meeting Point: Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
Tour Length: 4 hours
Tour Pricing: $138 per person
It’s another three-hour journey (ferry included) to get to this tour, but trust me when I say it’s worth the trip. The wrap-around deck on the MV Sea Lion means you’re guaranteed to see marine life. The tour company even has a 90% success rate in whale sightings during their tours. Now that’s no easy feat.
After boarding, you’ll cruise to San Juan Island, a notorious spot for Orca watching in Seattle. You’ll be able to watch these extraordinary whales’ unique hunting patterns while spotting other wildlife like otters and seals.
The tour focuses solely on the San Juan Island waterway, so you can spend more time in one region. This means you’re not missing any potential action in the region, which is a sure thing if the tour is venturing off to other nearby islands.
If you’re staying the night, check out the San Juan Island hikes to do when you’re done for the morning.
Note: The times for a ferry to San Juan Island change by the season, so be sure to book a ferry ahead of time to get to the departure point.
Click here to get your Friday Harbor whale-watching ticket.
5. Whale Watching Sea Kayak Tour
Company Name: Anacortes Kayak Tours
Meeting Point: 2009 Skyline Way, Anacortes, WA 98221, USA
Tour Length: 3 hours
Tour Pricing: $125 per person
For an adrenaline-pumping experience, grab a paddle and join this sea kayak tour. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Seattle to Anacortes, so the travel time isn’t bad. I did this years ago and stayed for the weekend in Anacortes, which I recommend doing not to feel rushed.
Take your pick between a morning or afternoon tour as you paddle past the pine forests of Burrows Island and Allan Island. Your tour guide will point out all the wildlife in the area, from otters to the marine life along the San Juan reefs below.
Where are the whales, you may be asking? As you pass through Burrows Bay and Allan Pass, you’ll hit the more open water between Fidalgo and Decatur Island. This is where you’ll most likely spot the local orca pods hunting salmon or the solitary minke and humpback whales.
Simply put, you’ll never forget the time you got up close to these mighty ocean dwellers, and it’ll be an unforgettable Seattle weekend getaway.
Click here to get your whale-watching sea kayak ticket.
Things to Keep in Mind When Whale Watching in Seattle
I’ve covered everything you need to know; however, you may still have one or two questions.
Where to Stay After Whale Watching Near Seattle
While I love whale watching, it can definitely be a long day, depending on which tour you take. This is especially true if you go to one of the San Juan Islands, so you’ll likely want somewhere to stay for the night after.
Here are my recommendations for each area:
- Whale watching in Seattle? Stay at Hotel 1000 to be within minutes of the Seattle waterfront, Pike Place Market, and other attractions.
- Whale watching on Orcas Island? You can’t beat Orcas Hotel, which has a view of the water and is right across from the ferry terminal.
- Whale watching on San Juan Island? You’ll love the affordable Island Inn at 123 West which has modern rooms with a view, bike rentals, and is close to restaurants and shops.
What is the Weather Like During the Whale Watching Seasons?
You can expect it to still be slightly cold and rainy from March to May, with an average of 10 days of rain per month. Temperatures average between 40°F and 64°F during these months.
Summer, on the other hand — June to September — is warm and dry, with an average of 4 days of rain per month. The temperatures tend to range from 53°F to 71°F and slight cloud cover, but you can generally expect sunny days.
As fall approaches, you’ll experience very similar weather to the spring months, although it is slightly warmer.
You’ll Need to Travel to Get to Your Tour
Although some tours depart from Seattle, most take place in and around the San Juan Islands region. This is because you are more likely to see whales in this area, so expect to drive between two and three hours to get to some of these fantastic tours. If leaving from the San Juans, you’ll need to make a ferry reservation in advance.
Where Else Can You See Whales Other Than on a Tour?
Another excellent spot for whale watching where you don’t have to board a boat is Alki Beach — 12 minutes from downtown Seattle. It’s a well-known whale-watching spot during the right time of the year, as humpback and gray whales tend to feed just off the shore.
I’ve also seen orca whales when visiting Edmonds multiple times, both from the shore and when I’ve been on the ferry.
What Time of Day is Best for a Whale Watching Tour?
This really depends on your preference as there is no “best” time to go whale watching. The morning offers calmer seas and less wind. As someone who gets motion sickness easily, I personally prefer going when there aren’t as many waves.
On the other hand, afternoons are when there’s high tide, so the whales get much closer to the shoreline. No matter when you go, though, you’re almost guaranteed to see these majestic animals out and about.
Whale watching in Seattle is an unforgettable experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list, whether you’re a local or a visitor.