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Whale in the Puget Sound - Bart Rulon

Whale Watching in the Pacific Northwest

There is something majestic about a whale moving just beneath the surface of the water, or better yet, breaching – particularly in the Pacific Northwest, considered to be the best whale watching destination in the continental United States.

In the Puget Sound surrounding Seattle, mottled gray whales come to feed on their migration from the Arctic Circle to Baja Mexico and back. Humpbacks have begun to re-colonize after decades of whaling, and you can often find minkes and massive finbacks among an array of porpoises, dolphins, seals, sea lions, otters, and shorebirds. But one species of whale calls the Pacific Northwest home year-round: the magnificent orca, or killer whale. 

“In terms of diversity and in scope and breadth, there’s no place that matches it here,” says Keven Elliff, Director of Marketing for Puget Sound Express whale watching. “You can see whales in Hawaii, you can see whales in Alaska – but only on their migration routes. We have them all the time.”

Chilkat Humpback Whale in the Puget Sound

Photo: Puget Sound Express

Few captains and naturalists know Puget Sound like those of Puget Sound Express. Currently celebrating 32 years, the family-run company offers half-day whale watching tours aboard the world-class Chilkat Express, which docks just north of Seattle in Edmonds. The foilcat is the fastest passenger boat in the region (with speeds up to 45 miles per hour), combining the stability of a multi-hulled catamaran with the speed of a hydrofoil.

Generally, the Chilkat sets a course for the San Juan Islands, crossing the beautiful Strait of Juan de Fuca, to seek out whales. However, because the boat sits on top of the water with no propellers, it can also travel deeper into Puget Sound – the only boat in the area with the capability to do so. (The watercraft is also relatively quiet underwater, which is important for respectfully viewing marine life.) “We can go north or south,” says Elliff, “wherever the whales are, and be back in four and a half hours.”

Along the way, live GPS readings show the boat’s progress and the whales’ location, while marine naturalists on deck (or in the closed-in, 60-person seating area) provide information about the creatures (such as how social groups are dominated by females) and a history of whales in the Pacific Northwest. “You are going to learn a lot,” says Elliff. “We have some of the most qualified and knowledgeable naturalists in the industry, [including several] award-winning photographers.”

Humpback Whale in the Puget Sound

Photo: Puget Sound Express

But the highlight of the trip, of course, is the moment the whales first come into view – an average of 28 feet long and weighing in at around seven and a half tons. 

Amongst the orcas in the Pacific Northwest, there are two distinct groups. The southern resident orcas are a large, extended family of whales that center around older females and feed on salmon, while the more well-traveled transient orcas feed on all manner of marine life, embodying the classic image of a killer whale alone or in small groups. 

“It’s a sense of awe and wonder and excitement,” Elliff says. “People really do have an incredibly strong connection with whales, and it reflects when they see them. It’s this visceral, emotional response of seeing whales in the wild.” 

Because orcas are a protected species, boats cannot approach within 200 yards, and above all else, the naturalists focus on the safety of the orcas and other marine animals. However, the creatures are often curious and can approach the vessels themselves when the engines are off. “They do quite frequently,” says Elliff. “On the occasions when they come really close to the boat, you really do sense something special.”

Seal in the Puget Sound

Photo: Puget Sound Express

In addition to seeing the orcas, guests can actually hear the whales’ calls, which can travel up to 10 miles. The Chilkat is equipped with a hydrophone to pick up sound waves not normally heard beneath the surface of the water.

When it comes time to head back to Seattle (or on the initial trip out), all of the crew members will recommend a slice of the boat’s signature blueberry buckle, a family-recipe coffee cake freshly baked on every trip. You can also preorder a gourmet boxed lunch from The Cheesemonger’s Table in Edmonds to enjoy on the search for some of the sea’s most magnificent inhabitants.


Upon your arrival at The Woodmark, speak to our front desk team for assistance reserving a whale watching trip and for directions to Edmonds, located just 30 minutes northwest of Kirkland. Additionally, you can reach us at 425.822.3700.

Featured Photo: Puget Sound Express; Bart Rulon

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