Whale Watching in Washington State with Kids: Seattle, San Juan Islands & Beyond

Whale watching tours near Seattle

Orca Whales. Photo via NOAA.

Three resident orca whale pods (family groups of whales) circle our waters  June through September — along with visiting orcas in April, May, and late September and early October. Minkes, humpbacks and gray whales also pop up here and there, along with smaller whales such as white-sided dolphins. Whale-watching trips are fun for creature-crazy kids — the tours’ naturalists also point out the wild variety of birds, deer and other island or sea residents. Here’s a quick rundown of whale-watching trips in Puget Sound (Washington only), including prices and ages welcome aboard.

With young children, look into the short trips; older kids and teens can (probably) handle the longer cruises. Most of the excursions listed here are on bigger sightseeing boats (not the zodiac-style inflatables that are not typically recommended for young children).

Questions to ask about taking children on whale-watching trips:

  • Do children often ride the boat? (More to get an idea of the kid-friendliness of the tour company)
  • How many people do you take on outings?
  • Do you have kids’ activities on board, such as coloring books, toys, etc.
  • Is there a naturalist or marine biologist on board?
  • Is there a heated indoor space?
  • Is there an on-board restaurant?
  • Are there changing tables or a place to change my baby or child?
  • What do you suggest we bring with us? (Binoculars, route maps, snacks, bird ID guides — or are they supplied?)
  • What’s your cancellation policy?
  • What if we don’t see any whales? Do you offer a free trip or money back (or just tissues for the kids, boo hoo).

Whale Watching Options in Puget Sound (Seattle, Friday Harbor, Orcas Island, Bellingham) :

San Juan Excursions
Departs from: Friday Harbor, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids ages 3 –12: $59
Tours last: 3-4 hour trips
Kid extras:  A children’s library, coloring crayons and books, a $1 snack bar, complimentary binocular use and a visit to the wheelhouse where they can “drive” the boat with the Captain.

San Juan Safaris
Departs from: Friday Harbor, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids ages 2-12: $55
Tours last: 3 hours

Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours
Departs from: Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington State.
Ages: All ages on Western Prince II; Kids 6+ only on Western Explorer
Kids on WP II 2-12: $56; Kids on Explorer 6-12 $76
Tours last: 2.5-5 hours
Kid extras: On-board snack bar, coloring sheets, toys, two naturalists on boards who are kid-friendly.

Clipper Vacations
Departs from: Seattle, Washington State.
Ages: Age 6 and up. Clipper Folk Say: “The day is long, nearly 12 hours with all but 2.5 hours onboard the vessel.  It is a lot of sitting time to keep young kids entertained.  Although we often see whales along the way, the whale watch excursion itself is 2.5 hours including to/from the dock.”
Kids under age 12: $20
Tours last: All day (12 hours).
Kid extras: An experienced, family-friendly naturalist is on board; three decks seating up to 200 people; rent binoculars for $5/pair; changing table in washroom.

Puget Sound Express
Departs from: Port Townsend, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids 2-10: $65
Killer Whale Tour lasts: 4 hours
Kid extras: Coloring offered to children; kids can accompany parents to the bridge to meet the Captain  (weather and conditions permitting).

Island Adventures
Departs from: Anacortes, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids 3-12: $49+ (lots of deals though)
Tours last: 3-6 hours
Kid extras: Guests receive a 64-page color-photo wildlife viewing guide, free binocular use while on board.

Mystic Sea Charters
Departs from: Anacortes, Washington State
Ages: All ages
Kids 3-17: Start at $49
Tours last: 5-6 hours

Island Mariner
Departs from: Bellingham, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids 4-17: $49
Tours last: 6.5 hours

Deer Harbor Charters
Departs from: Orcas Island (Rosario & Deer Harbor), Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids under 17: $42 & up
Tours last: 3.5 hours

Orcas Island Whales
Departs from: Orcas Island Ferry Landing, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids 12 & under: $59
Tours last: 3.5 hours

13 Things to Do on San Juan Island with Kids

Visitors flock to San Juan Island — in Washington State’s Puget Sound — in summer. Yes, it’s lovely to go when the days are long and nights are warm, but we treasure our winter daytrips and weekend getaways to the mellow island. Remember, those hotel stays are less expensive, you (probably) won’t need reservations at a restaurant and the kids get a little more attention from the locals.

What to do, where to sleep and where to dine while on San Juan Island? Here’s a quick rundown of my favorites, mostly centered around the sleepy little burg of Friday Harbor. It’s a quaint, walkable town. Want more? Read my book, Northwest Kid Trips: Portland, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver to get a more complete picture and additional kid-friendly ideas.

1. Watch a movie: At the simple, low-key Palace Theater, if there’s a family-friendly movie playing (the tiny theater only has room for one flick).

2. Go bowling: At Paradise Lanes, where family-style bowling is available, along with a video game or two. Try your hand at a strike — open bowling all weekend.

3. Eat a waterside dinner: Downriggers serves up platters of fresh, local seafood. Kids will love watching over the boats arriving and departing from Friday Harbor’s pier; there’s a kids menu to keep them happy, too.

4. Color while at the table: Order Let’s Discover the San Juan Islands: A Children’s Activity Book for Ages 6-11 before you go to keep little hands busy during the dinner wait.

5. Munch a lavender cookie: Pelindaba Lavender‘s Friday Harbor shop sells a variety of herbally scented sweets and salves, but the lavender-chocolate-chip cookies are a family favorite.

6. Curl up with a cozy cup of soup: At Cafe Demeter, served alongside the signature olive oil ciabatta. It’s an informal spot to pick up lunch — perfect with kids.

7. Snuggle with a childhood classic: Head to Griffin Bay Bookstore, where you can browse the children’s department for the perfect Pooh or Potter.

8. Pick out a puzzle, a puppet or a plaything: Among the cluster of shops in Friday Harbor, seek out Osito’s (120 S 1st St), an adorable children’s shop crammed full of imported toys and cute clothing.

9. Go nose to nose with a whale: At the San Juan Whale Museum, where orca skeletons swoop overhead and whale calls echo from a phone booth.

10. Hike with the little ones: Yes, even if the weather is a bit rainy, you’ll enjoy Lime Kiln Point State Park’s trail, which weaves through Madrona trees and sports spectacular vistas to the west (squint, and you may even spot Vancouver Island).

11. Learn a little (piggish) history: In 1849, the U.S. and the U.K. almost went to war. Over a pig. Right here, in Washington State. Learn more about this odd bit of history and help your kids become Junior Rangers at The American Camp. A tip: Print out the workbook ahead of time and read up before your trip on the ferry ride over.

12. Ride a watery roadway: Take a Washington State Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, whether you wish to travel passenger only or with your car.

13. Catch some zzzs: At Friday Harbor’s Earthbox Motel (go for the suite-style room, complete with kitchen). Or head for the island’s northern tip, to Roche Harbor Resort, where your family can explore the nearby art park from a true home base (check out those cottages!).

If this catches your interest, check in again on Wednesday. We’re going to be having a giveaway…

The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington State

Recent news of whale shows gone horribly wrong may lead some families to avoid live sea shows. San Juan Island’s The Whale Museum, a respectful facility focused on mammal life in the Puget Sound, offers a solid alternative for inquisitive kids.

Located on Washington State’s Friday Harbor, the 1,200-square-foot Whale Museum offers car-sized whale skeletons suspended in mid-air, seemingly just to wow little ones. Jarred whale brains and a nauseatingly long intestinal worm (jarred!) garner an ew yuck awesome reaction from bigger kids.

Children can listen in on distinctive whistles and blurts in a “whale telephone booth,” and look for orcas in a mock research lab. The children’s room encourages kids to don orca flippers, watch entertaining documentaries, read whale-riffic books or color pictures.

In the gift shop, look for the orca hats. We picked one up last year — since then, it’s been a mainstay of my preschooler’s wardrobe. He loves the compliments when he wears the tail-shaped hat, plus the opportunity to tell strangers the startling fact that orcas and killer whales are two different names for the same animal. Sort of like Mom and Lora: Two names, same animal.

Winter’s best for getting a good hotel rate on the tourist-popular San Juan Island, but summer is excellent for spotting orcas from Lime Kiln State Park (a 20-minute drive away from Friday Harbor), because that’s when the whales frolic in the waters.

Lime Kiln is the first U.S. park dedicated to whale watching, and hosts more than 200,000 visitors a year. Lime Kiln’s decommissioned lighthouse looks out over the Puget Sound, making it a perfect vantage point. Inside the lighthouse, researchers conduct acoustic and behavioral studies on orcas, minke whales and Dall’s porpoises.

Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of a sleek black-and-white shape, kids can count boats as the sun melts into the Salish Sea. And you can let them tell you again that orcas and killer whales are the same animal (don’t forget to act surprised).

Best for: Toddlers who like to dress up like orcas; preschoolers fascinated by whales; big kids who can read the museum’s descriptive posters and signs. In short, everyone.

Where: 62 First St. N., Friday Harbor. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost: $6 adults, $3 for children 5-18.

Friday Harbor Family Vacation