It’s no secret that cruising the San Juan Islands, Washington, is the activity of choice for anyone craving to see wildlife and nature at their most unguarded and pristine. There’s many a special sight for day tripper and avid explorer alike, with hundreds of birds and marine mammals known to live or travel through the archipelago.
It may take more than a little luck for anyone to spot the archipelago’s rarest wildlife, but there are several animals you will probably see just about any time you go cruising at peak season – and even if you go sailing another time of the year.
Better known as killer whales, orcas are the area’s most famous animal attractions and live in the archipelago all year round. People visiting the San Juan Islands in the spring through fall are bound to see three orca pods, or families, that typically emerge during those seasons.
These resident orcas – at least 70 in all – are so much part of the archipelago that local guides and scientists will be able to introduce them to you by name. The majestic mammals include “Oreo”, “Cappuccino”, “Spock”, and “Yoda.”
You don’t have to go too far out on the Salish Sea to spot harbor seals, another of the archipelago’s year-round residents. The most commonly seen mammal in the area, they “haul out”, or rest on land, during the birthing season, and usually forage for food no farther than four kilometers from their haul-out site. You’ll know them by their spotted black-and-white coats as they lounge on beaches, reefs, rocks, or docks.
Steller Sea Lions
Though less frequently seen than harbor seals, steller sea lions can also be found resting on shores all around the archipelago. Large and robust, with coats varying from light blonde to brown, they are distinguishable from seals because of their tiny ear flaps. The sea lions were named after the naturalist George Steller who discovered them in the 1740s. Once you see them up close, you might be forgiven for thinking they were called “stellar.”
Migratory birds fly over the region in the spring and fall, and wintering birds make the cold months worthwhile for bird-watchers; black oystercatchers are in the area every single month.
You’ll spot them easily as your boat sails past islets and rocky shorelines. Oystercatchers are distinctive not only for their dark feathers, but also for their long, bright orange beaks; yellow eyes with red rings; and light pink legs and feet. If you think your eyes might be deceiving you, rely on your ears – black oystercatchers make a noisy “wheep, wheep” sound.
One can’t expect to go wildlife-watching on the high seas without seeing a gull. When cruising the San Juan Islands in Washington, you will certainly see the glaucous-winged gull – the most common kind in the Pacific Northwest. Take note of the time of year you go looking for this bird, though. Its plumage differs in the breeding and non-breeding seasons. In the breeding season, an adult’s head is pure white; otherwise, it is streaked with brown. You will still know the bird by its solid, gray-blue back and wings, and large yellow beak with a red spot.
Among the birds that visit the islands, none could be as awe-inspiring as that symbol of America itself, the bald eagle. While these predators nest inland, you might be able to catch them hunting over sea for salmon and waterfowl. They are often seen in the southern part of main San Juan Island.
It might take more than one trip to see all these animals and the many more besides that call the San Juan Islands home – but every journey through the archipelago will be worth it.
Wildlife and Habitat, San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, FWS.gov
Whale & Wildlife Watching, VisitSanJuans.com