Outer Island Expeditions: San Juan Islands Whale-Watching Tour Review
This weekend I had the great pleasure of going on a whale-watching boat trip out in the San Juan Islands area. It was amazing and everything I was hoping it would be. Let me tell you about it. . .
A couple months ago I spotted a deal on Groupon for Outer Island Expeditions – it was $89 a person (reg. $119), plus I used a coupon code to save an extra 25% off (up to $50) – making it $306 for our family of four, or $76.50 a person (reg. $119). When you go to book your trip there are taxes due (I didn’t realize this ahead of time!) – an extra $14/person, bringing the total to $90 per person.
For reference, if I had booked this directly through the Outer Island Expeditions site my total would have been $448.87 or $112/person – so going through Groupon is savings of about $22 per person.
They have the same type of coupon code right now – use code PT75G5 to take an extra 25% off (up to $50) off your purchase. Valid through 8/29. If you do buy the Groupon you have until November 5, 2023 to go on a tour.
My son watching boats in the harbor while we wait.
Outer Island Expeditions has two tours a day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We did the morning tour at 10:30 a.m. We left Olympia at 6 a.m. the day of the tour and got to the Anacortes around 8:20 a.m. We stopped and had breakfast at Dad’s Diner right downtown. It was delicious and a great filling meal to start our day.
We got down to the Anacortes port around 9:45 a.m. and checked in. It was an easy process. Parking is $8 if you pre-pay when you make your reservation (it’s $10 purchased day-of). I do believe there is free street parking as well.
My daughter in aww of what she’s seeing on shore!
Around 10:15 they had us board the boat and by 10:30 we were headed out. The boat was very clean and easy to get around. We sat up on the top deck for the first part of the trip. It’s windy – but you can’t beat the views!
Dress warm! We went on a day that the temps were in the high 70s and I wore jeans, long-sleeve shirt, hooded sweatshirt AND a windbreaker. I was very comfortable and grateful I had dressed warmly. My teenage kids are allergic to jackets (ha!) – they really didn’t want to pack jackets to wear over their sweatshirts, but I didn’t give them the choice. Let’s just say they were VERY glad I made them bring jackets once we got on the boat and the wind picked up. 😉
We weren’t even out of the port before we saw our first Stellar Sea Lion! The captain was super helpful – describing our location as we meandered along the San Juan Islands. I had never been to this area of Washington before – it’s absolutely beautiful.
Along the coastline we were able to see harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks.
I wasn’t expecting to see deer on this boat trip but we spotted a couple deer along the edges of the islands
About 1.5 hours into the trip we found orcas! It was a pair of two and we watched them for at least 30 minutes.
Even though the boats stay back – to give the whales plenty of space – you can still see them well because they are so massive. I did not bring a professional camera with a zoom lens, I only had my iPhone and I was able to capture a few photos and video.
It was magical. The team on the boat was super helpful – answering questions and teaching us what they know about the orcas – telling us even the names of the specific whales we were watching!
The whales have specific markings that identify them and the pods that they belong to. The boat crew marks them on a big map inside the boat which I thought was a wonderful way for us to orient ourselves and what we were seeing.
After we watched the orcas for awhile, we headed in another direction where we spotted dolphins – too fast to photograph or stop for – but fun to catch a glimpse of anyway. Apparently they are fairly common in the area.
Next we headed toward some smaller islands and watched lots of stellar sea lions lounge around on the rocks – they are fun to watch. It was in this area that we also saw a sea otter – which there are only a FEW in the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands (I had no idea!). Northern Sea Otters are on listed as “endangered” under Washington State’s Endangered Species Act of 1981.
On the way back to port we watched a small island of double-crested cormorants – which I found entertaining with their long necks. And as we pulled back into the port we saw a bald eagle!
All-in-all we were on the boat for 3.5 hours and we saw the following species:
- Stellar Sea Lions
- Sea Otter
- Double-crested cormorants
- Bald eagle
- Lots of other birds!
It was definitely worth the trip – in my opinion. My teenage kids (ages 13 and 16) loved it and I’m grateful for the memories and the wonderful quality time together ooh-ing and awww-ing along the way.
While we are watching the whales, my 16-year-old son says to me, “Thank you mom for bringing us on this boat, we are so lucky to see this.” I replied, “Yes, son, we are,” as I got teary eyed with gratitude for the special day I got to spend with my kids. The older they get, the more fleeting these opportunities feel. It was a perfect day. . .not just because of the whales, but because I got to spend a day with my teens – making us all slow down and appreciate the beauty of the Pacific Northwest a little bit more. I can’t believe we get to live in such a beautiful area and I can’t wait to go back!
My top tips for this trip are:
- Dress warm. Lots of layers. I suggest warm socks, good tennis shoes, jeans, long-sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, windbreaker, sunglasses (it’s bright on the water!).
- Bring food/water if you need it. We brought snacks, just in case, but were so busy watching the wildlife we didn’t even get into them. They do have basic snacks in a galley that you can buy if you need.
- Wear sunblock or a sunhat. I’m a redhead – so I do this all the time anyway, but the sun is powerfully bright when it reflects off that water and you don’t have any shade.
- Bring binoculars. We brought some – glad we did – but if you forget yours, they do rent binoculars, I think they are $10 each.
- Get there early to check-in and use bathroom. We got there at 9:45, which is 15 minutes earlier than they recommend. We were able to use the restroom and hang out at a picnic table – getting in line for the first boat. Around 10:10 the line to the bathroom was LOOONG and I was grateful we got there early enough to get it out of the way. There is a bathroom on the boat – but if you can go beforehand, and skip the boat bathroom, that’s ideal.
Have you done a whale watching tour in Washington? Do you have questions?
This post is NOT sponsored or endorsed by Outer Island Excursions. I am a Groupon affiliate – and these links in this post are affiliate links – which means if you click through and purchase something, I make a small percentage at no extra cost to you.