Whale Watching, Seattle
I grabbed an end-of-season ticket (late September) on the Victoria Clipper's Whale Watching trip. I had wanted to see the whales that are resident in the Puget Sound and San Juan Island region at some point. I selected the Victoria Clipper trip because this was relatively inexpensive: $65 + $1 for each docking at Friday Harbor = total cost of $67. Also, pretty much all of the other whale watching trips leave from much further north - usually Anacortes or Friday Harbor itself. While this means you can spend a lot longer looking for wildlife on the water, it also means you are faced with the expense of getting that far north, and making an overnight stay or two at some location between Seattle and the San Juan Islands. The Victoria Clipper trip is the only trip out there where it is possible to do this all in one day from downtown Seattle and thus save an overnight stay.
However, it is also a very popular trip, and caters to the mass of tourists. See photo 3 of this tip for an example. I was able to get reasonably good photos because I braved the cold winds of September Puget Sound on the top deck for several hours, in order to preserve my place in a good location. Once the whales were spotted and dozens of people wandered onto the top deck, only the lucky (or, in my case, stubborn, foolhardy and determined) few on the edges were able to see much from the upper deck due to the crowd.
You do spend most of the day going from Seattle to Friday Harbor, and then from Friday Harbor back to Seattle. This means the wildlife and whale watching trip winds up only being about 3 hours - a fair amount of which is consumed by getting from Friday Harbor to where the whales are. However, most of the other stock whale watching trips are in the same category in terms of Whale Watch trip length.
The Victoria Clipper takes a fairly scenic trip on the water, and if the weather and tides allow they pass through Deception Pass (see my Deception Pass State Park page and photos from Deception Pass on the Victoria Clipper) and encounter a few wildlife encrusted rocks on the way up and back. The trip is far, far more scenic than the concrete channel of Interstate 5, even if it is partly or mostly cloudy and it is not possible to see any of the surrounding snow-capped peaks.
So, just keep in mind that the Victoria Clipper "Whale Watch" trip out of Seattle is far more than just a whale watch trip, and really is a scenery trip with whale and wildlife chasing thrown in. Also keep in mind that the trip doesn't just serve as a wildlife trip, but as a passenger-only service for those going to Friday Harbor from Seattle. The combination of Friday Harbor passenger service from Seattle mixed with a whale watch trip out of Friday Harbor is unique. There are other ways of doing this type of trip, but only if you start somewhere further north than Seattle.
Also something to keep in mind: smoking is allowed on the middle level deck that faces aft. I didn't smell any smoke during the trip for the most part, but there were fairly strong winds most of the time. Every other location on the vessel smoking is prohibited.
You will want to bring Warm Clothes!! as temperatures on the water are always quite a bit colder than they are in downtown Seattle.
My Personal Story:
I arrived at the Victoria Clipper office just a few minutes after 7. What I arrived into was total bedlam, and made me wish I had grabbed an earlier bus. The 7:30 departure for Victoria and the 7:45 departure for Friday Harbor were both boarding at the same time, and the crowd in the ticket processing line was pretty amazing. They were pretty good at processing everyone, with priority of course going to those with tickets on the 7:30 departure for Victoria, then the 7:45 departure for Friday Harbor, and then the 8:30 departure for Victoria. It was an awful lot of passengers trying to be processed at once, however.
I also found that by the time I was processed, many of the good seats (ie, window seats) were already taken, and in fact all the seats facing forward had already been taken. So, if you really want decent seats you need to show up even further ahead of time than 45 minutes before departure. I wound up on the cold outside upper deck, which was OK as I brought warm clothes and was already in position for the whale watch.
As advertised, the ship went right through Deception Pass and arrived pretty much right on time in Friday Harbor around 11:15. After discharging those passengers only using the boat as a ferry to get to Friday Harbor, the Whale Watching and Wilidlife trip commenced.
This trip first visited the rocks in the middle of Cattle Passage, at the south end of San Juan Island. These are popular resting grounds for sea lions (mostly stellar sea lions). Our on-board "naturalist" pointed out a few cormorants and a few other obvious birds, but there were grebes of some sort on the open water that we passed that were ignored. I'm pretty certain that the "naturalist" is only there to point out the most obvious and reads some of the material rather than really being an expert in the field - though the information is useful for those who aren't too familiar with the wildlife in the area anyway.
We then went off to see the resident Orca population (which aren't exactly whales - they are relatives of dolphins in reality), which was swimming very close to Friday Harbor. We returned to Friday Harbor at the scheduled 2 pm, allowing for some time to wander around town. Here, the naturalist knew the whales by the sight of the various tail fins and knew that each represented different pods - so we actually saw a sort of greeting contact between the three different groups of resident orcas.
The departure for Seattle happened pretty much right on time at 4:30, and arriving at the dock at 4 revealed that once again a long line had formed for those wanting the best of seats.
On the way south, we paid a brief visit to Smith and Minor Islands and their wildlife. Most of these were California sea lions and cormorants, but there were also a few common murres in the mix, and a few other birds that I didn't know. The "naturalist" on board only pointed out the cormorants and the sea lions - the two most obvious bits of wildlife.
We were also treated to views of the Olympic Mountains but the Cascades remained shrouded in dense haze from the fires burning to the east.
On the way south I was debating what to do about dinner. The Clipper food isn't exactly a bargain, but I wasn't sure about the amount of time I would have to find a quick dinner before leaving for my trip south. At 6:00 they announced the last call for hot food service, and therefore all bowls of clam chowder were $1 until they were gone. Two of those provided a wonderful and economical dinner as far as I was concerned.
Our return to Seattle was pretty much right on time at 7:15pm.
I don't wish to sound too harsh on the "naturalist" on board. They serve their function, but really are more of a tour guide and provider of basic information. The ability to tell the different pods and whales by the dorsal fin is pretty nice, and this proved useful. However, I would think that other operations that cater specifically to wildlife viewing may have people on board that know a bit more than those on the Victoria Clipper, just based on the bird species I noticed ours missed.
Included is Clipper's "The Explorer" trip guide, which includes coupons, a simple Friday Harbor map, and wildlife information. It isn't especially complete, but it is enough to satisfy the needs of probably 99% of the people who take this trip with the clipper.
If you can afford the time to drive and take the ferry north, or the much more expensive option of flying up there, my advice is an overnight in Friday Harbor and taking one of the true dedicated whale watching boats from there or Anacortes as they are smaller and not as crowded. If you must start in Seattle, the Victoria Clipper trip is certainly an option, but keep in mind the real wildlife part of the trip is fairly small. It may be better to instead treat the Victoria Clipper as a Seattle - Friday Harbor transportation means, and get a true wildlife and whale trip in Friday Harbor - but keep in mind that may require at least two overnights in Friday Harbor. Plus, the trips will be expensive (in Friday Harbor these are $75 to $90 - so the $67 from Seattle + Whale Watch is a bit of a bargain considering all that it includes).
I would also point out that the Victoria Clipper book, provided as part of this trip, includes a coupon valid for the purchase of the companion book for a trip with San Juan Safaris - so Victoria Clipper also understands the limits of this specific trip and does have a little publicized coupon for a group offering a different type of trip.
The Victoria Clipper III is similar to that used on the Victoria Clipper to Victoria, but is smaller and has the upper outdoor deck. For the most part the design of the ship is similar with various types of seating - tables, and seats facing forward, and a snack bar. See my Victoria Clipper to Victoria tip for photos of this boat, which is extremely similar.
I have 8 Photos from the Cattle Point Rocks and 8 Photos from the Whales. I also have 8 Photos from Deception Pass and 5 photos from Minor Island, which is a small island in Puget Sound where wildlife is visited on the way back from Friday Harbor.
Victoria Clipper (despite the name, the ships used are not, in fact, antique sailing vessels of the clipper type, but are modern diesel powered craft capable of moving at reasonable speeds) is primarily known for operating trips by ship from Seattle to Victoria, BC. However, they offer quite a variety of day and overnight trips out of Seattle, including whale watching trips from Seattle to the San Juan Islands, day trips and overnight trips to Leavenworth, and various other destinations all over the Pacific Northwest.
Many of their trips are fairly deeply discounted for the off-season.
Their whale watching trip is actually a trip that operates out of Friday Harbor, in the San Juan Islands. Therefore, I have put a description of their whale watching trip in my San Juan Islands page.
The Victoria Clipper off-season trips are a very economical deal, especially coming out of Seattle as pretty much any other whale watching trip requires a trip to the San Juan Islands. That is where the whales live.
There are simply too many people crammed onto their boat for the capacity of the viewing deck on the top of the boat. See photo 3 in my Victoria Clipper San Juan Islands tip for a visual idea of how this looks.
However, if you have a desire to go on a whale watch trip from Seattle, this is probably your best bet as every other company will fly you to Victoria or Vancouver BC or Friday Harbor, at considerable expense.
The best way to see the whales, however, is to go to Friday Harbor itself and find a smaller boat from one of the local companies. This requires a bit more research and time and effort.
One very nice thing about the Clipper trips, however, is that they get to see things that you can't see from the Friday Harbor trips. This includes a trip through Deception Pass State Park (see my photos of the trip through Deception Pass) and a brief visit to Minor Island to take a look at the wildlife there.
While it isn't enough time to explore anywhere on the islands, the Victoria Clipper trip also gives you about 2 hours to explore the town of Friday Harbor - and find lunch as that is on your own.
I saw 8 whales, 2 seals, and 4 purpoises on this tour. There were actually more animals but I was in the bathroom when some appeared. Also while I was talking to someone they said some more seals appeared behind me. Taking a picture of these animals was a challenge because they move so fast in and out of the water. Even to have a video camera was work.
The tour stops at Whimbley island. Although we were given 2 hours it really was not enough time to go to some of the areas. On Sunday some of the tourist areas near the dock was closed so it is best to go on Saturday. From what I saw it is a pretty place.
The day that I went it was warm and sunny but once we got on the water it got really cold. The temperature on the water was 40 degrees. If you go make sure you wear a sweater or hoodie underneath your jacket/coat, gloves, scarf, and hat.
Ok, so I was looking around google for things to do around Seattle and found whale watching. About 80 miles outside of Seattle there are resident orca whales that are around the San Juan Island from April to September. After some research I found a company that offers package on a seaplane from downtown Seattle off Lake Union up to San Juan Island.
The package also included the whale watching tour. The seaplane ride is AWESOME. You can also take just a "Seattle Tour" by plane. We took off at 8 AM and in about 45 minutes were landing at the docks of Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. After a short walk up a dock we checked into San Juan Safaris Whale Watching. They gave us a map of the town and the island with things to do and told us several places to eat lunch. Friday Harbor is very charming. We went shopping, ate lunch and spent almost an hour in the used book shop call Serendipity Books. TONS of books at low prices great for avid readers like myself.
We had lunch at The Bean. Good homemade food and great lattes and a bit of a view of the harbor too.
We then boarded a very nice boat, clean and sparkly. There were two guides and a captain. We saw orca whales!! about 20 of them, seals, all kinds of birds that the naturalists rattled off their names, bald eagles, and some Doll Porpoise rode wake for several minutes too. I took some photos but they dont do justice to any of the animals that we saw. It was an amazing three hours.
We boarded the seaplane going back and splashed down on Lake Union at around 7:20 pm.
Our hotel was across the street from Purple, the restaurant. We had a very unusual and delicious dinner there with some wine from their list of 1000's.
Talk about a day to remember. It was a full day for all the senses. I highly recommend this day tour.
Head north to the city of Everett where we boarded a day long whale watching tour. Over 80 Orcas whales — 3 families — live in the waters surrounding the Island of San Juan. Free Willy was filmed here. Orcas have complex social behaviors and are magnificent mammals. After seeing them in the wild, you will never visit another Seaworld.