kayaking w/ orcas?

Hello all, My sister has invited me to come to San Juan island this June for a few days of sea kayaking with the hopes of seeing the orcas up close. A couple questions for the sea kayakers on the forum that have experience on the west coast with these amazing animals.

I have been canoeing for a while and consider myself an intermediate in that area, but I have never sea kayaked before. What should I expect? How much of my skills will transfer? I did do a little WW kayaking way back in college.

I camped on the west shore of San Juan island 7 or 8 years ago and envied the kayakers that jumped in their boats when the orcas came by and were able to get so much closer than those of us on shore. My biggest concern would be to not bother the whales. How far back should one stay for their best interest? How about my best interest? I saw the video clip of the orca breaching and landing on a kayaker. Was that real? You never can be sure about pictures of any kind these days.

Thanks for any help, Larry

In the Province of BC there are
laws about the proximity of boats to Orcas and fines have occurred to those who venture too close. Sorry, I have no idea how close is too close.

In Hawaii
we can’t approach closer than 100yds. If the whales (humpbacks) choose, they may approach you. I imagine orcas fall under the same international ruling. And no, the orca breaching video was not real.

video fake, there are sound guidelines
the vid was fake, been around several years, a commercial from Japan I think.

I don’t have the source this minute, but it has beeen posted here and on other kayak forums GUIDELINES for observing whales of all kinds. Basically if memory serves it deals with distance, staying away from their direction of travel, and understanding issues that affect your and their safety. It is all part of what I call “seamanship” excercising good judgment and how everything is related to everything out there on the water. Adds to the enjoyment and understanding of things imo. Why I love the sport, “the hand” is connected to “the water” unlike most of modern civilization. It returns us to our basic connection with ourselves, each other and the darm planet.

Too close?
In addition to legal requirements on distance and that video aside, there is a story in “Deep Trouble” about a kayaker who went out among a pod of whales (I think orcas) and simply disappeared. As usual, he went in that close against advice.

Point being, they are pretty big and you in a kayak are just a brightly colored speck on the water. No one saw the whales go after him, but nonetheless more may be better than less in terms of a safe distance.

We kayaked with the Orcas and…
…paddled six miles at about 4.5 MPH with a pod of thirteen in Johnstone Straight

It was an awsome experience.

The marine mammals act forbids engine going vessels to be any closer than a 400 yards and paddle craft any closer than 100 yards.

However if you are sitting stationary and they approach you that is a different situation and you are allowed to sit and observe as long as you don’t molest them.

In our case we were hanging out about 150 yards from them and they came closer, evidently to check us out.

We started to paddle parallel to them and they accepted us.

We camped on a remote beach and some of the guys from The First Nations gave us a good education on them.

There are two different types; the resident pods which these were, who live just on fish, and the transients who are the “bad guys” and will eat fish, seals and any mammal that they can grab.

I queried them as to weather they thought the transients would be liable to attack a kayaker, and there respone was that they didn’t know of any, but wouldn’t put it passed them to.

One of them said his grandfather saw one grab a moose that was standing in several feet of water and pull it out.

The transients don’t hang around and you are not likly to see one.



Thanks - I had not heard that.

I assume the folks you spoke with can recognize which pods are resident and which are transient.

Did they mention any way for visiting non-natives to recognize the diff? (First thought is whale suitcases, or a tendency to put a fin out and ask for money for a phone call, but I doubt those apply…)

I have heard
that the transients travel silently so as not to alert their mammalian prey who also communicate with sound. Whether a kayaker can hear orcas above water, I do not know.

Thanks for the info everyone, Larry

San Juan Orcas
I have probably spent a minimum of four months paddling the San Juan’s over the past 7 years. That said, I have only seen Orcas a few times. They are mostly out in Haro Straight on the west side of San Juan Island. I tend to prefer the less frequented spots on the north side of Orcas Island.

Recent studies indicate that human-powered craft such as kayaks can contribute to potentially dangerous and unlawful situations around marine mammals. To minimize your impact, you may want to think use these simple guidlines.

  1. If you see whales - cluster up side-by-side and move out of the way! Group together in a flotilla and get out of the whale’s route - preferably towards the shore or in kelp beds. Whale pods as well as other boaters can navigate around kayaks that are “clustered up” than if the kayaks are in a strung-out formation.

  2. When paddling, avoid approaching marine mammals closer than 100 yards. Failure to observe guidelines can result in fines of up to $20,000 and a year in jail. Never “chase” after whales.

  3. Paddle a wide arc around seal haul-out areas. Resting seals are especially sensitive to slow moving craft such as kayaks. Watch for warning signs such as a heads-up posture, moving closer to water, etc. Take extreme caution and avoid stampeding seals into the water by giving the seal haul outs a wide birth.

  4. Paddle well offshore of national wildlife refuges. Be especially careful in late spring when many bird species are breeding on these islands. Bring and use binoculars so as to avoid disturbing wildlife by getting too close.

    As a side note, if you paddle Harro Straight be aware of current direction against the wind. Wind waves can get quite steep when currents and wind directions oppose one another. Flood currents run north in the Harro and fair weather summer winds are unusally out of the northwest. With a little planning and usual precautions, you should have a great time. I’m sure there are guided kayak whale tours if you feel the need.

    Have fun,


If i may add…
Also if you are in the presence of feeding humpbacks and they sound, gently tap your paddle on the yak which will create a underwater sound.

They are so busy feeding that when they surface for air they might not be aware of a small kayak and end up knocking you for a loop, and this alerts them to your presence.



Hope you don’t
Last summer we went on a sea kayak tour that said we would maybe be joined by the local pod. They did not show up but 2 of the group did come by when we were on break for lunch. I am glad we were not near them as the whale watching boats and pleasure craft would have mowed us down in their crazy persuit of the orcas. I actually felt bad for them. Possible if you are out of the way like JackL was it would be ok.