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San Juan Island Park Offers World-Class Whale Watching

Paula Wissel

When you think of going whale watching, you probably envision taking a boat. But there’s a place on San Juan Island that’s considered one of the best places in the world to see killer whales from shore.

Informally, the Lime Kiln Point State Park is called Whale Watch Park, and for good reason. Volunteer guide Patti Wickham with Friends of Lime Kiln says when the orcas come by, you can really see them.

“I’ve watched people get totally soaked by the breaching and the splashing. It’s pretty cool,” Wickham said.

Following the Salmon                 

The reason the killer whales come so close to these rocky bluffs above Haro Strait is the Chinook salmon, which swim in the swift, up to 600-feet-deep waters just off shore.

As I looked straight down from the rocks, she pointed to the kelp beds below.

Credit Paula Wissel

“The edge where you see the seaweed ends, that’s where it drops off. So they literally will be right there,” she said.

Which brings up a question that kind of bugs Wickham. You can probably guess the question she gets asked about the whales nearly every day: What time are they going to be here?

Her answer: “When they get here.”

“We can’t tell you what time. We know normally they are here this time of the year,” she said.

I should mention that whales aren’t the only attraction here. First of all, the view is stunning. From the bluffs, I can see a panorama of blue sky, glistening water, ships, and kayaks. In the park, you can walk by the old lime kiln and tour the historic lighthouse that was built in 1919 and still works.

But let’s face it: most of us come here for the whales.

What Is It About the Killer Whales?

Credit Paula Wissel

Bob Otis, a researcher and psychology professor from Wisconsin has spent 24 summers here.

The cool thing is he hasn’t just been recording the orcas’ behavior; he’s been recording the human reaction as well.

“The emotions that you hear and see, and feel out here when the whales go by—it’s just heart-tingling.”

You sense that feeling when, during a lecture in the lighthouse, Otis plays a video of human reaction to the whales. On the screen, you see people screaming with joy and disbelief as they watch the Orcas come by.

“You know, I’ve asked Ph.Ds what is it about the killer whale that’s so exciting and they’ll say, ‘Oh, they’re big. They’re beautiful. They’re wonderful.’ And I’ve asked kindergarteners the same thing and they’ll say, ‘They’re big. They’re beautiful. They’re wonderful,” Otis said with a chuckle.

Who’s Who of the Whale World

We’re also practically on a first-name basis with these Orcas. There are 80-some of the southern residents known as J, K, and L pods.

Credit Paula Wissel

At the Whale Museum, just up from the ferry dock in Friday Harbor, you can pick up a genealogy chart and find out who’s related to whom, what their individual markings are, and listen to then on underwater recordings. 

The way museum director Jenny Atkinson describes it, the L’s sound like birds, the K’s like kittens. And, as for J pod, “they’ve got that ee-aww, ee-aww sound,” Atkinson said.

Back at the park, Wickham speaks in awe of the matriarch of J pod, an orca named Granny.

“Granny’s 102 years old and she’s still out there, leading the pack, swimming in front. Everybody pays attention to her. If somebody gets out of line, she will put them back in line, and there’s behaviors you can see them doing it. It’s really amazing,” Wickham said.

Waiting for Whales

Credit Paula Wissel

When the whales do come by, everything else here stops.

“We’ll stand in the parking lot, telling people, ‘Come on, come on get down here. You need to come now,”’ said Wickham.

“And, there is nothing more rewarding than taking some guy from the Midwest who’s all, ‘Yeah, whales that’s no big deal.’ (I tell him,) ‘No, really, you need to come down and see the whales.’ And then an hour later, he’ll come up with tears in his eyes and say, ‘I had no idea,”’ she added.

It was early afternoon when we got word of a sighting nearby.

People converged on the rocks. The whale-watching boats began to gather. It felt like we were all part of the paparazzi, trying to get a glimpse of the celebrities.

They didn’t come close that afternoon. But we could see them in the distance, splashing and spouting. Everyone on shore stared in awe.

All in all, it made for a pretty special end to a summer day on the west side of San Juan Island.  

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.