It's the perfect time to see mighty orcas breach, splash and play in their natural habitat.

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“Thump!” The mooring lines of the San Juan Clipper land on the deck of the whale watching vessel. Warm summer sun reflects off of downtown skyscrapers as the crew makes final preparations to embark on a journey to the series of emerald gems that make up the San Juan archipelago. The engines come to life and the vessel slowly eases out of Seattle’s Pier 69. My travel companions and I chatter with the other passengers about our whale watching and sealife search ahead, hoping to see the mighty orcas breach, splash and play in their natural habitat.

10:45 am – Cruise under the historic Deception Pass Bridge

Our sleek catamaran picks up speed, clipping along at 25 knots. As we settle in and soak up views of the snow-capped Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, we quickly notice the stark difference in landscape. Soon we’ve entered a completely different scene. The steel, glass and pavement of the city have given way to pristine forests and craggy coastline.

Perched upon steep cliffs, the historic Deception Pass Bridge towers above us as we enter the narrow, swift-running Deception Pass. As we cruise under the massive girders of the bridge, we spot a group of harbor seals lounging on the rocky shoreline. An order of tasty sandwiches and cookies from the onboard menu arrives as we continue our journey up to San Juan Island.

12:00 pm – Whale & sealife search

After a brief stop in beautiful Friday Harbor, we cruise into the open waters of the Salish Sea to search for our black-and-white orca locals. Our excitement mounts as we venture into the whales’ playground. We clamber out on the deck for a 360-degree view, leaning against the railing and straining to see the telltale signs of elusive orcas in the water. Suddenly, the sun glimmers off a towering dorsal fin, slicing through the waters like an onyx knife. Our onboard naturalist starts calling out whale locations as distant blows are spotted. “Dorsal fin 10 o’clock! Surfacing two o’clock!”

Ahead of us, a nearly indescribable scene as an entire pod of orcas makes its presence known. The naturalist peers at their distinctive markings, introducing members of the pod by name. The boat falls silent as we watch the orcas gracefully rise and fall through the chilly Salish Sea, swimming in unison. It’s a magic unlike any other, my heart suddenly fluttering and skin tingling at the sight of these majestic mammals. As if sensing our delight, one of the whales quickly slaps its tail against the water, signaling a friendly hello with what is known as a tail lob. The “ohhs” and “ahhs” from my fellow passengers increase exponentially with each playful movement.

A day watching for whales and other sea creatures around the San Juan Islands. (Provided by Clipper Vacations)

2:30 –Shopping and galleries in Friday Harbor

Smiles plastered across our faces following our encounter, we cruise back to San Juan Island. We quickly disembark, eager to spend a few hours wandering the streets of this hidden paradise. Our noses lead us to the Pelindaba Lavender shop, where we sniff our way through an enticing collection of soaps and candles, promising ourselves a return trip to visit the actual lavender farm. On a recommendation from a friend, we head next door to the Arctic Raven to check out museum-quality masks and totem poles as well as an array of other intricately carved works.

A grinning orca skull greets you at the Whale Museum.  (Clipper Vacations)
A grinning orca skull greets you at the Whale Museum. (Clipper Vacations)

3:30 pm – Visit to the Whale Museum

As we stroll around the quaint town, we stumble upon the Whale Museum, and duck inside this one-of-a-kind locale to learn more about the orcas of J, K and L pods. We peruse the museum’s fascinating collection of whale skeletons, a family tree of our beloved residents, a map of whale sightings and even a recording of the orcas singing!

4:30 pm –  Cone at Friday Harbor Ice Cream Co.

With a little time remaining before our return trip to Seattle, we pop inside Friday Harbor Ice Cream Co. We hem and haw over the mouth-watering array of flavors before deciding on the refreshing Northwest Berry Swirl and the dark, creamy Death by Chocolate.

5:00 pm – Journey back to Seattle

It’s time to head home by the time we polish off our cones and hop back aboard the San Juan Clipper. An utterly relaxing and tranquil ride back follows as we watch the sun start to dip lower on the horizon. After a fabulous day on the water, we are welcomed back by the glowing buildings of the city and the Great Wheel, happy knowing we had a chance to meet our region’s original locals.

Ready to plan your San Juan Islands whale watching adventure direct from Seattle? Book today at clippervacations.com.