Port Angeles Whale Watching : Finding Orca in the Pacific Northwest

Created by Colleen Sims | Updated : 1 July 2024 |

Port Angeles is found on the northern edge of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.  We visited Port Angeles because we wanted to hike Hurricane Ridge.  We’d visited Washington State because we wanted to hike Rainer but oh my we discovered so much more; including whale watching.

The Pacific Northwest is incredible and the coast spectacular.  The Salish Sea which borders this region, contains Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia.  The waters are home to some of the largest whale populations in the world, including resident Orca.

We have never seen Orca in the wild so Port Angeles whale watching was put on our agenda.

Orca whale in Puget Sound with the Olympic Mountains in the background

Why Choose Port Angeles?

Port Angeles chose us because of its proximity to the Olympic National Park.  It boast a fabulous coast but also serves as a gateway to the park, providing easy access to the lakes and mountains.

Puget Sound provides a near perfect estuary environment and is home to diverse range of marine life and seabirds. The nutrient-rich waters attract whales year-round, including the resident Orca.

Puget Sound Express ships have been operating tours for decades from Port Angeles so it felt like the perfect base; we could hike, explore the coast and go whale watching.

taken from our ship of the calm blue sea as we left Port Angeles to go whale watching

Best Time To See Whales In Port Angeles

Whales are present year round.  Indeed in 2023, the highest number of Orca sightings were recorded by the Pacific Whale Watch Association

Other whales are migratory and whilst it’s possible to see them year-round there are specific seasons when you’re more likely to see them.   

Top Tip : You should be aware that whilst whales may be present, whale watching tours in Port Angeles may only be available between May and October.

What Whales Might You See?

Common sightings include Orcas (killer whales), humpback whales, gray whales, minke whales, and various dolphins and porpoises.

Killer Whales (Orcas)

  • Present : Year-round
  • The Pacific Northwest is one of the best places on earth to see killer whales, also known as Orcas.

Humpback Whales

  • Present : Possible year-round but best April to November
  • The Humpback whale population was in sharp decline following whaling in the early 1900’s.  However, thanks to conservation efforts, they have experienced a tremendous recovery in recent years. 

Gray Whales

  • Present : Possible year-round but best February to May
  • Gray whales are migratory and travel between the Arctic and the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. The Salish Sea serves as a valuable stop for Gray whales and spring and early summer are the best months to see them.  

Minke Whales

  • Present : Possible year-round but best May to September
  • These whales are drawn to the region by an abundance of small bait fish in the spring and summer and are often seen lunging toward the surface through tight schools of fish known as bait-balls. 
two orca brothers seen in Puget Sound during our whale watching trip from Port Angeles

Is Other Wildlife Present In Puget Sound?

Puget Sound is home to a remarkable variety of wildlife, including numerous fish, marine mammals, and birds.  It also provides a temporary home for migratory birds; perhaps you’ll spot a great blue heron, a bald eagle, or ducks and geese.

Harbor Porpoise

A single harbor porpoise will eat hundreds of small bait fish, like sardines or anchovies every hour.  But whilst they are permanent residents and plentiful, they are shy, making them difficult to spot. 

Dall’s Porpoise

Another year round resident, they are considered one of the fastest marine mammals on earth, travelling at up to 35 miles per hour.  They are not as shy as the Harbour Porpoise and will  occasionally approach boats to investigate.

Pacific White-Sided Dolphin

These dolphin are present year-round but live in the north of the Salish Sea and sightings are rare.

Seals And Sea Lions

The sea is also home to plentiful seals and sea lions.  As we sat eating our picnic at Sekiu (an historic fishing village, nestled beside the Strait of Juan de Fuca) we watched cheeky sea-lions helping themselves to salmon carcasses, discarded by the local fishermen.

Top Tip : Beside the plentiful wildlife, you shouldn’t discount the stunning mountain landscape which provides a pretty breathtaking backdrop to your whale watching tour.

fishermen in Sekiu throwing salmon carcase to the waiting sea lions in the water

Is There A Choice Of Whale Watching Tours In Port Angeles?

Yes but the most popular seems to be Puget Sound Express.  We did some research and they guarantee that you’ll see whales, or they give you a free tour. 

From the Puget Sound Express Website :

The Salish Sea is home to an astonishing variety of whales, including orcas, humpbacks, gray whales, and minke whales. With thousands of departures over 39 years, our local knowledge is unmatched. As a result, our success rate is the best in the industry. If you don’t see whales on your whale watching tour, we will gladly give you a voucher for a cruise on a later date – no questions, no hassles, no expiration. Guarantee is not valid for split trips, specific whale species, or cash back.

  • We checked online and found thousands of excellent reviews
  • They’ve been providing tours since 1981
  • We liked their strong emphasis on conservation and education and that they are partnered with many of the educational and conservation organisations.  

We were very happy with our choice of tour and also loved that there were two onboard marine biologists who provided a considerable amount of information for the duration of the tour (and were excellent spotters too).

Gerry on the boat during our Port Angeles Whale Watching trip

How Long Is The Whale Watching Tour

Tours typically last between 3-4 hours and in summer you can choose from a morning or afternoon sailing.  We opted for an afternoon and enjoyed a glorious sunset for free.

We were surprised at how long we were at sea.  We travelled some distance from Port Angeles, following the two Orca brothers and later travelled into Canadian waters following the Humpbacks. 

On some whale watching tours we’ve taken there is definitely a point where the tour ends and ships head back to port.  Not this tour.  It felt like the crew knew we were watching some great whale sightings and were happy for us to stay on the water longer.  This was really excellent.

How Much Do Tours Cost?

In 2024 the tour that we took cost :

  • Adult: $135 
  • Child (2-10): $105 
  • Infants: Free

How Do You Book Your Tour

We booked online direct from Puget Sound Website; I didn’t find any other way to book online.  You can also go the harbour office and book there but I do recommend you book in advance as the tours fill.

Whale tail visible just as it dives back into the Salish Sea

What Is Included In A Whale Watching Tour?

Initially I thought our ship was smaller than expected but actually it was plenty big enough (what do I know!)  There was room for everyone to sit comfortably and to move around during sightings

  • It was sunny but cold out of the boat but thankfully the inside heated cabin was great if you wanted a short break. 
  • The ship had a toilet and you could purchase snacks, hot and cold drinks and everyone was given their Blueberry Buckle cake.  Gerry enjoyed his but sadly there was no gluten free alternative for me.
  • There were two marine biologists onboard as well as the very knowledgeable crew.  Everyone was easy to talk to and happy to answer questions.  The commentary was extremely entertaining, thanks to relaxed and happy manner.  But we also learned a great deal from their expertise and passion.

What is So Special About The Salish Sea and Puget Sound For Whale Watching?

The convergence of ocean currents and fresh water and the regions history with volcanic activity has created an abundance of nutrient rich waters.  

  • The sea is home to a remarkable array of wildlife.  It is also home to a diversity of habitats, such as estuaries, wetlands, eelgrass beds, and kelp forests, providing essential resources for different species.
  • The region’s rivers provide a critical habitat for several species of Pacific salmon. And salmon are a keystone species, meaning their presence and health significantly influence the broader ecosystem.  As well as the permanent residents, the area serves as a vital stopover for migratory birds who use the diverse habitats for feeding, breeding, and resting.
  • Finally, and perfect for a seafood lover like Gerry, Puget Sound is known for its shellfish, including oysters, clams, and mussels. They are not only economically important but they play a significant role in maintaining water quality.

Overall, the rich marine life in Puget Sound is the result of a combination of natural processes, geological features, and active conservation efforts, all of which contribute to creating and sustaining a nutrient-rich and biologically diverse environment.

seals basking in the late sun off the coast of Vancouver Island

Interesting Whale Facts

I love whale watching trips.  We’ve seen whales in New England, Maui, Sri Lanka, Monterey and Iceland (and a spot of shark watching in Cape Town).  Whales are mysterious and majestic and I cannot fathom why anyone would want to harm them, but did you know that :

  • Whales Don’t Spray Water from Their Blowholes.  Contrary to popular belief, whales don’t actually spray water from their blowholes.  Instead, they forcefully exhale air (breath out), creating a spout that consists of moisture, mucus and mist.
  • Although they aren’t furry, whales have hair. Whales, being mammals, have hair follicles albeit if it’s not visible in all species.
  • Whales Can’t Breathe Underwater.  Just like us, whales have lungs and breathe air. Their blow-hole act like nostrils, allowing them to inhale and exhale.
  • Humpback Whales are maybe the most playful and also known for their songs, which can last up to 20 minutes and be repeated for hours.  Blue Whales, the largest animals on Earth, produce a deep, resonant sound and Orcas communicate with clicks and whistles.
the sun dropping into the Puget Sound changing the sky colour

Frequently Asked Questions

The Port Angeles town website, Puget Sound Express and the Pacific Whale Watching Association are all great sources of information.  Indeed, if you wish to book a tour with Puget Sound Express you will need to visit their website or their ticket office on the harbour front.

In the meantime I’ve answered some of the questions you may have below.

What kind of weather might I expect whale watching from Port Angeles?

According to Weatherspark, the temperatures are comfortable but there’s definitely a chance of rain during spring and summer.  However, whilst Washington State and Seattle might have a reputation for rainy days, Port Angeles has a bit of a micro climate which keeps temperatures mild and protects it from some of the rain. 

We were in Olympia for just over 2 weeks in August and September and we saw not one drop of rain and enjoyed warm (even hot) sunshine for the duration of our visit.

charts showing temperatures and rain days for average weather in Puget sound

How do tour operators ensure minimal disturbance to the whales?

During our tour our captain explained that ships do communicate with each other to help with spotting but the number of vessels is limited and there are strict guidelines in place (something that would be great for the Blue whales in Sri Lanka and Mirissa).

Ships must stay 200 metres away from the whales.  If the whale gets closer to the ship, as happened in our case, the engines are turned off and we have to wait until the whale chooses to leave. The two Orca brothers we followed did move within that 200 metre distance and we did have to sit and wait for them, before we could move.

Are the tours suitable for children?

The tours are suitable for children and prices reflect this.  Indeed we’ve taken our kids on a few whale watching trips over the years and they loved seeing animals in the wild.

Are the tours suitable for people with disabilities?

This is harder and you would need to discuss your needs with your tour company.  Puget Sound Express have this on their website :

Due to Coast Guard requirements such as raised threshold on all doorways, we are not handicap accessible. That said, we have helped many folks pre-board to make it work with their families. Some mobility is required or the ability for someone in your group to assist or carry the person on-board. For instances like this we can use your foldable wheelchair down to the dock and then the guest would have either walk up our boarding ramp or be assisted/carried into the cabin. There are many windows throughout the cabin and our captains work hard at positioning the boat on his/her side so that they can see the wildlife from their seat. If you have a guest that falls into this category, please contact the office ahead of time so that we may arrange pre-boarding for your family.

Will I need sea sickness medication?

We travelled a surprising distance from shore.  We were lucky that the sea conditions were perfect although it was cold. 

Do be prepared for varying conditions.  Even if it’s sunny and warm on land, it’s possible that seas can be choppy further out.  If you suffer with sea-sickness I would recommend that you take your medication in advance of the trip.

What should I wear? 

Weather at sea can be unpredictable.  It was very warm and sunny when we left Port Angeles but you will be at sea for up to four hours and you should be prepared for changes. 

I’d recommend comfortable, easy to wear clothing.  For this kind of trip I often wear outdoor/hiking gear and shoes.  Also dress in layers, and have a warm layer and a waterproof layer.  For us, as the sun was dropping, the wind picked up and Gerry was very pleased he took his hat.

What safety measures are in place?

Safety was a priority.  We had a full safely briefing when we arrived.  Life jackets were available, and we were given the full emergency procedures just in case anything were to happen.

We felt safe at all times.

Is A Port Angeles Whale Watching Tour Worth It?

It was so worth it! We’ve both been whale watching many times before and I’m sure we’ll go again.  Whale Watching isn’t the cheapest activity but there is something very special about these magnificent creatures which compels me to want to see them again and again.

We had no expectations about our day, this is nature after all.  But we were encouraged by the guarantees given and in my heart I really hoped that we would see Orca.

We followed two Orca brothers for some time as they dived and resurfaced.  And as they moved into our 200m safety zone we got to watch these two beautiful Orcas up close!  We watched Humpbacks and pods of Porpoise and lots and lots of seals.  Not only did we find whales we got to enjoy breath-taking views of the Olympic Mountains. It was so worth it!

If you take the afternoon tour, you might be lucky to be on the water to watch the sun sink, turning the water a glorious apricot.  We were thrilled with our tour.  We could not have wished for more!

★★★★★

Looking For A Hotel?

  • Port Angeles Motel was central, inexpensive with easy parking and ideal for a short stay.
  • Book early as Port Angeles had very few beds when we arrived!

Visiting Washington State?

If you’re spending some time in the area you may be interested in our other posts from our time in Washington State :

lighthouse off the coast of Vancouver Island

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

Whenever you travel, you should have a great travel and medical insurance policy.  None of us expect anything bad to happen, but in the event of an incident, you want to be sure that your insurance will be there for you.

I’ve ended up in hospital in Peru, Indonesia, Portugal, Japan and Ireland! Every time my insurance took care of everything. I would never leave home without full and comprehensive insurance.

TrueTraveller : We have this policy and we are very happy with the cover, especially considering our ages and pre-existing conditions.

Globelink : We have used and recommended Globelink for years and we’ve not heard of any issues. They are a great choice for European and UK Residents.

Safety Wing : Many of my travelling buddies from the USA have recommended this company to me, although we’ve not used them personally.

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Colleen in Salamanca on the Via de la Plata

Hey I’m Colleen. I’m married to Gerry, we’ve three fabulous kids and been living in France for almost two decades. I fell in love with Spain in the 1980s and I’ve walked 1000s of miles along the Camino de Santiago. Now we’re exploring and walking the world and I can’t wait to share what we’ve learned!

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