This US State Is The Best Destination For Whale-Watching

When it comes to seeking out a memorable encounter with whales and dolphins in the wild, jet-setting off to a tropical destination may be the first option that comes to mind. However, if you're a wildlife enthusiast who wants to see whales in their natural habitat, it's time to trade in your bathing suit for some warmer clothing and book a flight to the Pacific Northwest. With its vast untouched marine waters, Washington state is considered one of the best destinations in America for an unreal whale-watching experience.

The waters off of Washington's coast are home to many different species of whales, including humpbacks, minkes, and gray whales. Orcas, also known as killer whales, are probably the most iconic marine mammal that you can spot in the state. (Despite what their moniker suggests, orcas are actually considered the largest member of the dolphin family.) In addition to observing some of the largest animals that live in the ocean, you'll likely get to catch a glimpse of sea otters, sea lions, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and other marine mammals. And depending on your travels, there are several different whale-watching destinations in Washington to check out. 

The best whale-watching sites on the mainland

A helpful resource for ocean enthusiasts visiting Washington is The Whale Trail Guide. Created by organizations, governmental agencies, and experts focused on marine life conservation, the guide has a comprehensive map of optimal whale-watching sites across the entire state. This includes top-tier spots for even casual explorers staying in major cities like Seattle and Tacoma.

The San Juan Islands — located in the Salish Sea off the coast of northwestern Washington — are a popular year-round destination for wildlife lovers hoping to observe whales and orcas in their natural habitat. There are over 170 named islands and reefs in the San Juan Island chain, including three major islands: San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island. The San Juan Islands are easily accessible from the mainland via ferry, seaplane, or water taxi. Barbara Marrett of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau also told the Los Angeles Times that Lime Kiln Point State Park is a prime location for whale-watching because three pods of Southern Resident orcas typically spend time close to this state park's shore between May and September.

Moreover, you can visit the nature-abundant Olympic National Park, located on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. In the park, Kalaloch, Rialto, and Shi Shi Beaches are considered prime locations for whale-watching from the shore. Off the coast of the peninsula lies the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which includes over 3,000 square miles of protected, untouched marine waters, making it perfect for sightseeing.

Hit the waters for a closer encounter

If you want to have a close encounter with a whale or orca, there are plenty of eco-friendly, on-the-water excursions to choose from. Many companies across the state offer half-day or full-day wildlife tours that take you to different whale-watching hotspots in the waters surrounding Washington. Per the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, charter boat tours are offered out of several Olympic Peninsula destinations, including Neah Bay, Sekiu, La Push, and Westport. In addition, the San Juan Island Visitors Bureau has a resource page with professional whale and wildlife tour companies you can book with ahead of your visit to the state. For a longer trip, whale-watching company Puget Sound Express offers a three-day cruise that explores the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands.

For those who want an even more immersive experience, you can also go kayaking in Washington to see whales during the best times of the year. San Juan Outfitters, a trusted tour company that operates out of the northwest side of San Juan Island, offers five-hour "orca search" kayak tours. While there is no guarantee that you'll spot an orca during your trip, this activity is any ocean lover's dream. So whether you're staying on the mainland or hitting the waters, there are plenty of superb spots for whale-watching on your next trip to Washington.