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Life List: Sea Kayaking with Orcas in the San Juan Islands

orcas island
Straddling the Canada-US border in Puget Sound three hours northwest of Seattle, the San Juan Islands are like a zoo without fences. More than 100 pairs of nesting bald eagles soar against the backdrop of white-capped Mount Baker. Four thousand harbor seals loll around lazily on kelp beds. Millions of migrating salmon swim furiously on underwater highways, heading toward Puget Sound’s tributaries. Yet the archipelago’s most famous residents are undoubtedly the 84 orcas separated into three pods who take up residence from June to September. And from the cockpit of a sea kayak at water level, the experience of greeting the orcas can be like saying hello in their own living room.

A First-Person Perspective

“It’s hard to put into words what it was like to be on the water, 100 meters from these large creatures. Just to see them coming from a couple of miles away, and getting closer and closer, it was just something special to experience. I didn’t expect it to be that moving,” says Stan McGroom, who ventured on a multi-day paddling trip with Sea Quest Kayaking Expeditions and his wife a few years ago.

Orca Behavior

Though orcas are also called killer whales, the menacing name is misleading for these creatures that are a part of the dolphin family. They’ll “spy hop” (playfully jump out of the water) and squeal and click, all with you there as a witness. In between such intimate animal encounters, the astounding views of the Cascades to the northeast and the Olympics to the southwest will hold your attention.

Summing Up the Experience

For the McGrooms, the San Juans trip was another tick off their healthy travel to-do list. They’ve fly-fished in Alaska, hop-scotched through New England in the fall, and explored the cluster of national parks in southern Utah. Yet, looking back, Stan says the San Juans now hold a special place among their adventures far and wide. “It was a trip of a lifetime,”Stan says. “Not because we climbed Everest or reached some distant destination. Instead, it was full of simple pleasures, and every once in a while, we got to casually coexist with all of this incredible wildlife.”

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