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

Families Travel! Corene goes to Orcas Island

Luckily, Seattle-area foodie blogger Corene Caley (foodiepatootie.com), husband Calvin and daughter Arden (age 5 ½) always knows where to eat when arriving on Orcas Island.

The happy family

Caley is more than qualified to dish on Orcas’s culinary delights. “We go to Orcas two or three times in the summer and about every other month in the fall/winter/spring. I’m sure that will change now that Arden is starting elementary but hopefully we’ll fit it in.”

Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands, is located about two hours northwest of Seattle via Anacortes, Washington and the Washington State Ferry system.

Why does your family frequently visit the San Juan Islands?

I was lucky enough to marry a great guy. His family just happens to have a place on the North Shore. Lucky me.  His father built the house himself in the 60’s. We get up there often and have watched the island become a true foodie family destination over the past 10 years.  “Farm to Table” is an understatement – It’s incredible!

Can you tell us about your favorite, kid-friendly Orcas Island restaurants?

Roses Bakery and Roses Bakery Cafe, Eastsound (382 Prune Alley, Eastsound, 360-376-4292) Local produce is the star for breakfast and lunch.  Food is excellent, but our favorite is the bakery attached to the cafe. The bread rivals any I’ve eaten worldwide. Our favorites are the Hearth loaf (available daily, can be sliced for you) and the Tortano (a very large circle of the most delicious bread you’ll ever have) which is only available on Saturdays and sells out quickly. The cold case is filled with a nice selection of cured meats, cheeses and (when available) beautiful house-made pâté.  House made pies, pie dough and meat pies available in the freezer case. Roses is always busy and deserves all the praise it receives from locals and visitors alike.

Allium in Eastsound – We had the pleasure of dining at this 3 month-old restaurant a couple weeks ago. Owner and chef Lisa Nakamura took over the space once occupied by Christina Orchid, who is an island and foodie legend.  Lisa’s resume includes the Herbfarm and French Laundry so needless to say we were excited. The staff was very accommodating to our 5 year old (who of course used her princess manners the whole time).  Beautiful views and even better food.  Favorites were Roasted Vegetables with Caramelized Onion and Herb Dip, Chilled Roasted Baby Beet Soup
Fresh Dill, Toasted Hazelnuts and our chicken and halibut “bigger plates” were excellent.

The Madrona Bar & Grill, Eastsound. This restaurant is another newcomer to the island.  Kids allowed!  We were wowed by the casual fare here.  Fish and chips, best burger I’ve had in a long time and our daughter wolfed down her pasta with pesto cream and perfectly cooked prawns.  Delicious.

Orcas Island kid-friendly restaurant

An Orcas Island restaurant

Vern’s Bayside, Eastsound. Vern’s is a local institution on Orcas.  Big portions, big view and sassy service.  Mostly Americana and Bar fare – but the real treat is breakfast.  The Crab Omelet is embarrassingly full of fresh Dungeness. Plenty to split.  Crab Benedict is also delish.  Definitely kid-friendly – when we walked in the owner gave our daughter a logoed flying disc and made sure we knew they were “the only restaurant in Eastsound to offer a kids menu!”.  Not sure on that one.

The Orcas Hotel, Orcas Ferry dock.  This is the place that makes going home a little easier.  We arrive at the Ferry dock early (which you need to do anyway) and head straight to the hotel for breakfast.  There is a full service dining room but we like order at the counter cafe which is serving up a great breakfast sandwich.  We are not talking low fat here…it’s a freshly baked croissant stacked with always perfectly scrambled egg, sharp cheddar and your choice of bacon or giant sausage patty.  Served with a nice selection of fresh fruit.  Hot chocolate, coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice.  Should we get that homemade cinnamon roll too?  Sure, throw it in – we’re still on vacation right?

What does your family like to do on Orcas Island?

Orcas Island Farmers Market (Saturday, Village Green, Eastsound). FOOD FOOD FOOD!  Local artists, jewelry makers, farmers and FOOD. Locally made grilled Italian sausage, ribs, vegetarian goodies, cupcakes… seriously good food abounds.

Orcas Island Pottery. Drive up the country lane, look for the “Faint not…” sign and you’re there. The island pottery and views are lovely but our favorite is the recently added tree house.  Total delight.  Plus they are open every day except Christmas and Easter and encourage picnicking and general lingering.  What’s not to like?

Black Dog Farm, just up the road from our place on the North Shore (short drive or longer walk from Eastsound).  Open Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus they do the Saturday Farmers Market in Eastsound. Produce, meats, eggs and flowers. Family owned by very nice folks.

Howe Art Sculpture Park (items for sale), just outside of Eastsound. You can see a few of the kinetic sculptures from the road but make the trip up the winding hill to this magical sculpture park.  Everyone in our family loves the moving sculpture – truly a special place.

Orcas Island structure

A wood ball at Howe Sculpture Park

What does your daughter like to do on Orcas Island? Any child-friendly favorite activities?

She loves to play on the beach, visit the farms, walk to the “point,” which is a rocky outcrop along Orcas’ North Shore, S’mores, collect shells, visit Howe Art sculpture park, eat Roses Bread, catch crab, take walks in the woods, hike to Cascade Falls (this is a VERY easy hike for kids…it’s more like a walk and it’s only a few minutes for big payoff)

Hiking in Moran State Park

A kid-friendly hike on Orcas Island

We’ve also been to the Funhouse, a very cool kids play and learning space with drop in learning/play. It’s surprisingly fantastic for something on an island. There was a craft ‘yurt’ with tons of supplies which she loved. I would compare it to a more interactive version of the Seattle Children’s Museum – on Orcas Island!

Families Travel! Sharlet Goes to Orcas Island

In February 2010, Sharlet and her son Liam (9) went to Orcas Island with friend Marci and her three children: Issak (8), Sydney (5) and Will (6 months) Orcas Island is part of Washington State’s gorgeous San Juan Islands, a ferry ride and drive from either Seattle or Victoria, BC. The San Juan Islands usually show up on a Top 10 Islands list every year in a travel publication or site, and are a don’t-miss experience if you’re visiting Seattle.  The three islands (Lopez, Orcas and San Juan) each offer various kid-friendly options, but Orcas is a nice pick if you want a balance between stuff to do and a secluded retreat.

a baby on the beach at orcas island washington state

Baby Will in a beachside Bumbo

Q: Did you find a child-friendly hotel on Orcas Island?

Sharlet: We had a great family get-away at the West Beach Resort. Definitely a great place for kids to roam the beach and play; very family friendly at a reasonable cost.

We stayed in a beach-front cabin, two-bedroom arrangement.  We liked that it was casual, so we didn’t have to worry about the kids tracking sand in. We just opened the door and swept it back out.  The cabin had a small kitchenette that we were able to prep all our own  meals in.  It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean, comfortable and reasonably priced.  We also liked that each cabin had a wood burning stove inside (good on chilly days) a picnic table on the porch, and a fire pit & outdoor chairs right in front by the beach.

Q: What kinds of things did you do with kids on Orcas Island?

The resort helped to connect us to Outer Island Expeditions, and had a fantastic half-day boat tour north of Orcas. We saw porpoises, seals, sea lions, lots of herons, bald eagles and other bird life. Captain Beau was fantastic with our children. He was patient with their busy-ness and tendency to interrupt when he was talking — which is typical of young kids — but it’s not so typical of tour guides to be patient with them!

Apparently his mother was a school teacher, and Captain Beau seems to have picked up some of her skills!  The highlight was a trip to Suscia Island, where he took us to a fossil beach with fossils approximately 65 million years old; which is hard to even wrap the brain around.  It was fascinating for all of us, and like finding buried treasure for our children!

(Lora’s note: Recent census data says Suscia Island’s permanent population is four.)

Q: What else did you do on Orcas Island with kids?

We puttered around Orcas just looking at other beaches, but our kids were so happy at West Beach that we spent most of our time there.

orcas island with kids

Beach leaps

The website has a link to some pottery places that we wanted to take in, but we ran out of time. At The Right Place Pottery, next to the resort, kids can make their own stuff on the pottery wheel. We’d like to try it in the future though.

Downtown Orcas is charming and almost everything is in walking distance.

There’s also a children’s art and science museum called The Fun House. We were saving it for a rainy day — which luckily didn’t occur — but it looked enjoyable.

We went to Moran State Park and putzed around, but we didn’t stay in the park.  Although we did see deer that were so tame they walk right up to you- hoping for snacks. A big thrill for the kids!

Q: Did you eat in any family-friendly Orcas Island restaurants?

We cooked meals in our kitchenette at the resort, so no food recommendations.  We did get groceries at the Island Market though, which isn’t big but has a reasonable selection. Not a lot of organics or specialty foods though, so I recommend taking those with.  Although we saw that they have some great summer open-air markets (Orcas Island Farmers Market) later in the year.

We were able to dig clams at the resort- and even though it wasn’t at low tide time, we were able to cook up enough for each kid to try them and say “ewwwww….!”.  They just haven’t developed a taste for shellfish yet! The kids can also fish off the dock there.  We were there at off-season time, so no luck, but they had fun trying.

Q: What was it like to go in the off-season to Orcas Island, to go in winter? Did you find cheaper rates?

February was unusually warm this year, so no extra coats required. Most years, however, I would think you’d want rain gear.  It was quieter in the off-season, and a little less expensive — we got lucky with the weather!  But that wood-burning stove in the cabin would be great on a cold rainy day.

family vacation on orcas island at a resort

An Orcas Island beach walk

Q: Anything else you’d like to add about your family vacation on Orcas Island?

Only that we would definitely go again, and we’re hoping to plan a trip there with multiple families at the same time.