There’s been a lot of recent confusion about whale watching in the San Juan Islands and Washington State waters. Here’s what’s happening in the San Juan Islands. It’s a complicated issue, and the San Juan Island Visitor’s Bureau is happy to answer questions and provide clarification. Most importantly, government and industry are working together to protect Washington’s endangered Southern Resident Orca Whales.
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee’s recent recommendation for a three-year suspension of viewing endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) will not eliminate whale and wildlife watching activities in the San Juan Islands. Southern Residents make up a small percentage of local viewing opportunities; visitors can still view the Salish Sea’s other healthy populations of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions and river otters on land or by sea. The San Juan Islands are still one of the best places in the world to whale watch.
More Than Orcas To Be Seen in the San Juan Islands
According to a recent Seattle Times article, Inslee stated that “The whale-watch industry spends up to 85 percent of its time with customers watching other whales. We will still have a robust whale watching industry.” These other whales include Bigg’s or transient killer whales, humpbacks, grays, and minke whales.
Visitors come from all over the world to see whales and other marine wildlife in the wild and to visit Friday Harbor’s Whale Museum — the first museum in the world dedicated to the stewardship of whales rather than the exploitation of whales (e.g. whaling museums) – and many waterfront parks to educate themselves on the conservation of whales. Naturalists leading tours on the water or onshore, provide education and instill a stewardship ethic in visitors that has helped make the plight of the SRKWs a world-wide issue.
Responsible EcoTourism in the San Juan Islands
Responsible ecotourism is a critical piece of education, conservation, and the economy of the San Juan Islands. Some local ecotourism operators and NGOs are in favor of the temporary SRKW viewing suspension, while many others are in favor of alternative measures that would highly limit viewing of SRKWs under a proposed strict permit system; believing a limited group of seasoned ecotour operators would serve as educators and a deterrent to poor behavior on the part of boat owners unaware of the whales’ presence or vessel regulations around whales.
New vessel rules are just one of many proposed comprehensive measures to support SRKW recovery. Regardless of how recovery efforts unfold, visitors and locals can still view Southern Resident orca whales from shore throughout Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. Here in the San Juan Islands, orcas sometimes come quite close to the shoreline while chasing salmon through the kelp forests. For those who happen to be in the right place at the right time, they will get the thrill of a lifetime as these majestic animals glide through the water.
For the latest info on whale watching guidelines which may be changing in 2019 based on what the governor and legislature decide on visit the Be Whale Wise website.
One of the Best Places (on Land) for Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands
Lime Kiln Light was the last major lighthouse built in the state of Washington, and the last to be connected to electricity. Both the lighthouse and state park are named after the lime kilns built in the area in the 1860s. The lighthouse operated with an incandescent oil-vapor lamp until after World War II, when it was replaced by a lens that used an electric light bulb. Two houses to accommodate the lighthouse’s keepers were built during the construction of the light and are still located behind it.
Today, the beacon flashes every 10 seconds starting at sundown, illuminating around 17 miles of sea, but Erin Corra, the founder of FOLKS, said the signal emits a call far beyond that: the park receives around 350,000 visitors annually from almost all 50 states and roughly 40 different countries. A hydrophone attached to the lighthouse also provides visitors with a marine soundtrack, capturing everything from the pops of snapping shrimp to the elegiac calls of orcas. Also known as Whale Watch Park, Lime Kiln Point State Park is renowned for being one of the best places in the world to view orcas and other whales from shore.
Lime Kiln Lighthouse is an internationally recognized icon of the San Juan Islands which became operational on June 30, 1919, making June 30th,2019 its landmark 100th birthday. If you would like to be in the group photo when one of the most photogenic lighthouses on the West Coast turns 100, then mark June 30th, 2019 on your calendar. There might even be whales in the background!
Festivities planned by Friends of Lime Kiln Society (FOLKS) include:
- Keynote speeches from the Coast Guard and Washington State Parks
- Lighthouse cake contest and cake walk
- Silent auction and raffle
- Special Lighthouse Anniversary wine label
Also planned in 2019 are updates to the park’s interpretive center to enhance the visitor experience. New video displays of marine bioacoustics and footage of marine mammals that frequent the park are in the works as well as a virtual reality experience of the intertidal zone.