The Top 14 Best Places to See Orcas in Washington State
Sleek and powerful, orcas — also known as killer whales — are beautiful apex predators that embody the allure of the Pacific Northwest. In Washington, these iconic marine mammals are an integral and interconnected part of the state’s cultural heritage and marine ecosystems. As you can imagine, seeing an orca racing through the waves is an awe-inspiring experience that goes beyond words. But where can you witness the awe-inspiring grace and power of these incredible animals? Here are the top 14 best places to see orcas in Washington State!
Three Types of Orcas in Washington State
There are three distinct types of orcas (Orcinus orca) that you can see in the Salish Sea along the Pacific Northwest coast:
- Offshore orcas
- Transient orcas
- Northern and southern resident orcas
We don’t know a lot about offshore orcas, since they tend to spend their days further out at sea. However, scientists believe that these enigmatic marine mammals hunt sharks and travel together in groups of up to 100 to 200 whales. In Washington State, you’re more likely to see transient and resident orcas.
also known as Bigg’s killer whales, Transient orcas, are culturally and genetically distinct. Their name comes from Dr. Michael Bigg, the researcher who first observed the whale’s nomadic or “transient” tendencies. Transient orcas embrace a life of constant movement, seasonally migrating in search of food. Unlike other orcas, they prefer using stealth and passive listening over echolocation, exclusively hunting marine mammals like dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, seals, and even other whales.
Transient orcas have pointed dorsal fins and grayish, closed saddle patches on their bodies. They are social animals and love to hang out with their families, typically traveling in smaller pods of around three to seven whales.
Northern and southern resident orcas, on the other hand, stay in the same area throughout the year rather than traveling from place to place. These whales are quite unique in that rather than eating marine mammals, their dietary habits instead focus exclusively on fish — primarily, chinook salmon. Resident orcas typically have dorsal fins with a rounded top that has a pointed tip at the back. In addition, they have three white saddle patches that can be open or closed. They travel in larger groups with their cousins and other relatives.
Southern resident orcas, in particular, are the smallest group of resident whales. They are also, unfortunately, critically endangered. There are only three pods of southern resident orcas today: the J pod, the K pod, and the L pod. Their decreasing numbers are due to the decrease in the salmon population, in addition to increased boat traffic, pollution in the water, and loss of their natural habitats.
Let’s look closer at the top 14 best places to see these orcas in Washington State!
1. San Juan Islands
One of the best places to see orcas in Washington State is the San Juan islands in the Salish Sea. Nestled between Washington State and Canada’s Vancouver Island, this group of over 170 islands is a popular destination due to its natural beauty and abundant wildlife.
The San Juan Islands are a sanctuary for resident orcas who thrive amid the bountiful salmon-filled underwater canyon to the west. The whales live in this area all year round, but the best time to see them is when they’re feeding on salmon from April to October. You can book one of the popular whale-watching tours, or even watch the orcas while standing safely on shore! Seals, sea lions, and other marine creatures are common here as well.
One of the largest of the San Juan Islands is home to Lime Kiln Point State Park, which is one of the best places to see orcas from land in Washington State. Nicknamed “Whale Watch Park”, this scenic island offers a front-row seat where you can often see the J, K, and L pods of southern resident orcas swimming along the shore. They can be seen throughout the year, but are more common from May to September.
In addition, it is also home to many other beautiful marine mammals like gray whales, porpoises, and humpback whales. You may need binoculars to spot the elusive minke whales, however, as they are small but fast swimmers.
3. Orcas Island
The largest of the San Juan Islands is Orcas Island, one of the best places to see orcas in Washington State. In fact, Orcas Island is known as one of the best places in the entire world to go whale watching!
There are tons of whale watching tours offered on Orcas Island, from which you can spot orcas, minke whales, harbor and Dall’s porpoises, harbor seals, bald eagles, ospreys, and other sea birds. The best time to see orcas on Orcas Island is from March through October.
4. Alki Beach Park
Another great place for land-based whale watching is Alki State Park in West Seattle. This is one of the best places to see orcas in Washington State during the fall and winter months. It is a coastal haven for the southern resident orcas making their annual return at this time.
Alki Beach Park is also one of the venerated points along the Whale Trail. While standing near the Whale Trail sign at Alki Beach Park, look northward toward Discovery Point and Northwest to the Bainbridge Islands. This is the best spot in the park to see southern resident orcas as they travel through the middle of the channel. In addition, you can occasionally spot transient orcas here throughout the year.
This charming coastal town is just an hour and a half north of Seattle on Fidalgo Island, situated across from the San Juan islands. While the island is conveniently connected to the mainland by a sturdy bridge, Anacortes is renowned for its bustling ferry dock, which serves as a gateway to Shaw Island, Lopez Island, and Orcas Island. It is also one of the best places in Washington State to see orcas, especially from February to October. Transient killer whales feed in this area all throughout the year. You can also see many other incredible marine animals like minke whales, humpback whales, and gray whales.
6. Whidbey Island
Known as a prime spot for whale watching, people come to Whidbey Island for a chance to spot gray whales and orcas, and sometimes even a humpback whale. Another spot on the Whale Trail, resident orcas are most often seen at the island’s Bush Point in the winter months, beginning in October or November. California Sea lions, harbor porpoises, harbor seals, and river otters are also common.
7. Destruction Island Viewpoint
Situated along Highway 101, Destruction Island Viewpoint is one of the best places to see orcas in Washington State. It is also an iconic spot along the Whale Tail. The orcas here are distinct from their resident counterparts in Puget Sound — these whales are transient orcas who come to Destruction Island to hunt sea lions rather than salmon. You can also spot gray whales along the coastline, and sometimes an occasional humpback whale during the late spring months.
8. Point No Point Lighthouse
The oldest lighthouse in Puget Sound, the Point No Point Lighthouse was built back in 1867. Located on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula, it is just about an hour north of Seattle. Facing the Admiralty Inlet, the lighthouse provides an excellent vantage point to view marine mammals traveling between the lower reaches of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Duca.
In the fall and winter, Southern resident pods J, K, and L come to this area seeking salmon to feast on. Transient orcas are also common here throughout the year. You might even be lucky enough to see a gray, mink, or humpback whale, in addition to seals, Steller sea lions, and California sea lions. The Point No Point Lighthouse is also a phenomenal place for bird-watching.
9. Olympic National Park
Nestled on the breathtaking Olympic Peninsula, the Olympic National Park is one of the best places to see orcas in Washington State. Both resident orca pods and transient orca pods are common here. Resident orcas live in the area throughout the year, but transient orcas are more common in April and May and then again in October and November as they travel through the area looking for food.
The best places to watch for orcas in the Olympic National Park are South Beach, Rialto Beach, Shi Shi Beach, Kalaloch, and La Push. Shi Shi Beach is one of the most stunning areas you’ll find on the coast of Washington State, while La Push is a coastal haven nestled at the mouth of the Quillayute River. Orcas regularly glide through the waters here and hold a sacred place in Quileute traditions.
10. Deception Pass State Park
Located on both Whidbey Island and Fidalgo Island, Deception Pass State Park is an excellent place to see orcas in Washington State from the shore. It is a beautiful area, with rugged cliffs, swirling eddies, old-growth forests, and stunning panoramic views. Transient orcas commonly travel through the pass from June through September. Sometimes you can spot them swimming through Deception Pass or beneath Deception Pass Bridge. You can also see resident orcas dining on salmon here as well.
There is a myriad of wildlife in Deception Pass State Park, from harbor seals and harbor porpoises to all kinds of incredible birds. In addition to orcas, you can also see gray whales, humpback whales, and minke whales here from April through September.
11. Port Angeles
Another excellent place to see whales on the Whale Trail in Washington State is Port Angeles. A short drive from Seattle, Port Angeles is a treasure trove of marine marvels. You can observe humpback whales, gray whales, minke whales, and resident and transient orcas. Prime whale-watching season in Port Angeles is from May through October, and whale-watching tours depart from the harbor each day. Whether you choose to embark on a boat excursion or wander along the shores on foot, there are plenty of chances to spot whales within the surrounding waters.
12. Neah Bay
Located on the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, Neah Bay is a wonderful spot to see orcas in Washington State. It is a somewhat remote location, but it is definitely worth the trek due to its pristine scenery and lack of heavy maritime traffic. This definitely makes for a more intimate and unique whale-watching experience.
There are many excellent whale-watching tours offered in Neah Bay, but you can also spot orcas from the shore at Cape Flattery. Both resident and transient orcas often pass through the area throughout the year, but transient orcas are more common. Resident whales are more plentiful during the summer months due to the salmon run.
Located in Whatcom County, Bellingham is not too far from the San Juan Islands, and its waters are bursting with amazing marine animals. Bellingham is known for its orcas and whale-watching tours, from which you can enjoy watching resident killer whales. On occasion, transient killer whales also pass by, as well as elusive minke whales. Closer to shore, you’ll see harbor seals and bald eagles, with harbor and Dall’s porpoises playing on the waves. During the summer, Steller sea lions come here for the salmon, and sometimes you can even spot cute tufted puffins along the rocks.
14. Port Townsend
The charming city of Port Townsend sits on the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. You’ll find so many treasures here, from the historic Victorian buildings to incredible cider. And of course, one of the major highlights of Port Townsend is whale watching! Directly south of the San Juan Islands, you can spot orcas from the Point Wilson Lighthouse, or book a whale-watching tour into the Salish Sea. You can also learn more about these amazing marine mammals by visiting the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.
Summary of the Top 14 Best Places to See Orcas in Washington State
|Place||Location||Best Time to See Orcas|
|San Juan Islands||Northwest Washington||April through October|
|Lime Kiln Point State Park||Northwest Washington||May through September|
|Orcas Island||Northwest Washington||March through October|
|Alki Beach Park||West Seattle||Fall and winter months|
|Anacortes||North of Seattle on Fidalgo Island||February through October|
|Whidbey Island||Puget Sound, north of Seattle||Winter months, beginning in October or November|
|Destruction Island Viewpoint||Western Washington||May to September|
|Point No Point Lighthouse||North of Seattle||Fall and winter (southern resident orcas); year-round (transient orcas)|
|Olympic National Park||Western Washington||April through May, and October through November|
|Deception Pass State Park||Northwestern Washington||June through September|
|Port Angeles||Northwestern Washington||May through October|
|Neah Bay||Northwestern Washington||Summer months|
|Bellingham||Northwest corner of Washington||Mid-June through early September|
|Port Townsend||Northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington||Mid-May through mid-October|
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Monika Wieland Shields/Shutterstock.com