The Salish Sea is considered one of the most productive waters in the world, comprising of over 172 named islands not including the many more smaller islands that appear with the fluxing tide. The Pacific Ocean filters in and around the islands every day with the tide and is heavily dependent on nutrients cycling through the water. Nutrients flow off the islands and the mainland and get stirred up in areas of upwelling off the sea floor which provides a lush plankton population. In turn, the plankton acts as a strong foundation for much larger marine mammals that enter our waters.
Islands are important to both the biodiversity and ecosystem health where more than half the shoreline in the Salish Sea exists on islands. This provides a home to terrestrial, marine and freshwater wildlife, as well as a temporary refuge for migratory stopovers. The Salish Sea is home to hundreds of fish species and marine invertebrates, numerous reptiles and amphibians, 32 butterfly species, a diverse array of marine and terrestrial mammals, and 200 species of birds.
Living and thriving on San Juan, I have come to love exploring the island and seeing what wildlife roam about. Whether you are new to the island or have visited before, San Juan provides wildlife encounters sure to impress for years to come. Because this island is so captivating, I am going to provide a guideline of the top 10 animals to keep an eye out for in the wild as you plan your next adventure!
1. Bald Eagles!
Our nations legacy was removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened species in August of 2007 after being listed since the late 1960’s. This is in huge part to the support of both private and public landowners with the banning of DDT and habitat protection by the Endangered Species Act for breeding grounds and nesting sites.
The San Juan Islands are home to the largest breeding population of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 with over 125 nesting sites. This is amazing! Whether you are hiking Mt. Finlayson or exploring the islands by boat or kayak, you are likely to spot many of these beautiful birds of prey. They are one of our animals that is worth cheering for as we can actively view their success story, while reminding us that we can all influence change within our threatened and endangered species.
You can view these birds of prey soaring above our heads with their six-foot wingspan or perched against the evergreens scanning the horizon. If you are keen to view them from a different perspective, book a kayaking trip with San Juan Outfitters to see them roaming around San Juan, Henry, and Spieden Islands! Although Benjamin Franklin thought they were too lazy of a bird to represent our nation [favoring the hard-working Wild Turkey instead], we couldn’t be more exciting about the high numbers continuing to grow in our area.
2. All of the Hundreds of Birds!
We aren’t just here for the Bald Eagles! San Juan Island is home to over 200 species of birds, both marine and terrestrial, making it one of the top bird watching areas in the state! With a high volume of water flow through the straits surrounding the island, this is a rich environment for many species to thrive, especially during the summer months. Although many birds live here year-round, the San Juan Islands are a major feeding ground for our migratory species. A few of these summer sea dwellers include:
- Tufted Puffins
- Rhinocerous Auklets
- Common Murres
- Pigeon Guillemots
The best way to view these is Birding with San Juan Safaris as you can get up close and personal views within their natural habitat. Not only do we have an uproar of marine birds, we also have diverse land to accommodate many terrestrial species as well. There is a combination of prairie, shrubby fields, along with mixed coniferous and hardwood forest. It doesn’t stop there! San Juan also provides large, protected bays and mudflats, grassy/rocky slopes, and open woodland.
Plan on grabbing the binoculars and scoping out the best birding areas on the island? Birding on San Juan Island can help point you in the right direction! In order to learn more about our birds, check out the National Park Service and see what sparks your interested. Wherever your interests lay, come see what everyone is Raven about!
3. Black-Tailed Deer!
Some type of deer can be found on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. Native to San Juan Island and the largest of all the land mammals, the Black-Tailed Deer are quite abundant! Lacking in natural predators, these guys are thriving in numbers and even swim from island to island.
These deer can commonly be seen grazing in fields, along the roadside, or even sneaking up on you while hiking the island. I am quite fawned of these cuties. They are our only deer species and can be identified by their long ears and tails, both being black on top and white underneath. Large males may also have a good set of antlers. Although commonly mistaken, antlers are not the same as horns, and can be shed every fall and begin growing again every spring. Fun fact: antler tissue is one of the fastest growing living tissues in the world!
Be mindful of these deer as you travel around, while they are used to human intervention, they are still wild animals and deserve respect and space. Maintaining slower speeds while driving is a great way to keep you and the animals safe on island!
4. All the Morphs of the Red Foxes!
An all-time visitors favorite is the Red Fox! Seen so much, I often hear it referred to as the San Juan travelers’ spirit animal. Not only do they have the easiest scientific name [Vulpes vulpes], they come in a wide array of colors! These include brown, black, silver, and orange. Despite the diverse morphs, they all have the iconic bushy, white tipped tail.
Red foxes were first introduced to the San Juan Islands in order to control the European rabbit population which has been causing major destruction since the early 1800’s. These canines are active year-round but tend to be more exciting when the vixens start giving birth to 2-5 kits between April and May.
They can be seen in an assortment of habitats on the island, such as forests, beaches and prairies, but the best place to view them is on the southern end of San Juan Island in prairies with high rabbit populations. For best viewing, try heading down towards American Camp near Cattle Point. I’ve found the greatest success on Pickett’s Lane leading down to South Beach.
5. American Black Bear?
You read that right! We have had a few random sightings over the years of American Black Bears swimming from island to island. The theory is that they are on the search for a mate, as it is most commonly seen during the spring months. Most recently in May of 2019, a black bear traveled from Camano Island > Whidbey Island > Fidalgo Island > Orcas Island > Shaw Island > San Juan Island > Lopez Island. It was even spotted by a ferry worker swimming through the San Juan Channel! Coming from northern Wisconsin, I could bearly contain my excitement with this temporary addition to the island.
These bears do not appear to be aggressive, in fact, with black bears in their “fight or flight” response to danger, they are more likely to flee, and primarily care about the bird feeders. While this may be true, I do not condone the act of pursuing any bears, as they are still very large, wild animals. However, I thought it was a fun addition to the potential wildlife sightings on San Juan.
6. River Otters!
Who hasn’t fallen in love with the otterly adorable images of otters holding hands while sleeping? They are definitely a must sea! However, unlike Sea Otters, River Otters never float on their back. Found in both marine and freshwater habitats, they forage on land and in marine subtidal and intertidal zones.
On the sunny southern exposures of San Juan Island, you may stumble upon a prickly pear cactus as high up as the otters haul out. It is said that they were introduced by River Otters that transported quills in their fur from rivers in Eastern Oregon, through Washington State, into Puget Sound, and up to the San Juan Islands.
Although you can stumble upon these mustelids while exploring coastal shorelines yourself, or even see them briefly while boating around, the best way to view them is by hopping in a kayak and exploring those intertidal zones from the water! Try booking with San Juan Outfitters and hearing more about them from our experienced guides!
7. Harbor Seals!
These rock sausages are sealiously cute! Hop on a boat tour with San Juan Safaris and gain a personal view of the world’s second smallest true seal! Harbor Seals max out at around 300 pounds and 5-6 feet long.
June will really seal the deal if you are in love with these puppies of the ocean, as they start to give birth to their pups. With an increase in their population, you may also see an increase in Bigg’s Killer Whales. About 10 days to 2 weeks after the females give birth, they breed with the males and go into a dormant gestation period where the egg is fertilized but does not actually start growing for another 3 months. Being pregnant for only 9 months like us, this allows them to make it a full year to give birth again.
Because they cannot rotate their pelvis like sea lions, they will be found close to the water’s edge. Known for their great camouflage, look for any smooth rock on the shoreline in areas of high upwelling that may be slightly moving. That’s not Wilson floating in our harbor! If you see a gray volleyball with large eyes looking up at you, that will also be one of our Harbor Seals. One of the most iconic is “Popeye,” the half blind Harbor Seal that often visits the docks near Friday Harbor.
8. Steller's Sea Lions!
I often describe these massive Sea Lions as dinosaurs, not only because of their deep bellows that travel great distances, but because they are the largest sea lions in the world! Steller’s Sea Lions max out at around 2,400 pounds and 12 feet long. Try and visit the islands between Labor Day and Memorial Day as they are a migratory animal that heads back to their breeding grounds in Alaska for the summer months.
Being their feeding grounds during the off season of wooing their ladies, we primarily see males in the area. Unlike the Harbor Seals, Steller’s Sea Lions can rotate their back pelvis and are quite agile rock hoppers. Once they return to their breeding grounds, the males duke it out for a territory and their own pick of the ladies… the more the better!
Book a trip with San Juan Safaris and hang out with a naturalists for 3-4 hours to hear more about these amazing ocean beasts. The best way to spot them is by boat and scoping out their large, toasted marshmallow coloration along rocky islands near San Juan.
9. Humpback Whales!
I am saving the best two for last! This one takes the cake for many reasons, the key one being that this is an amazing comeback story in the Salish Sea! Humpback Whales were once very vibrant in our waters but were sadly decimated by commercial whaling. Within the past 4-5 years, we have been in awe of their success and the increasing numbers with every passing year. So much so, that biologists predict the population is recovering to pre-whaling numbers and hopefully nearing carrying capacity- which is exactly what you want in a population!
Near San Juan Island, we largely see the Hawaiian Population that migrates from their breeding and birthing grounds in Maui to their feeding grounds here in the Salish Sea. However, we do view some whales migrating from Baja, Mexico as well. The best way to witness and learn more about this amazing recovery is to hop on a boat with one of our many, knowledgeable naturalists through San Juan Safaris and feed off their excitement; they’re usually krillin it with their whaley good puns. But in all seriousness, you don’t want to miss out on the epic tail flukes that are as wide as the boat!
10. Saving the Best for Last... Killer Whales!
Rated one of the top destinations for wild orca sightings in the world, here on San Juan Island we have two ecotypes of Killer Whales:
- Marine Mammal Eaters
- Travel in smaller family groups
- Thriving population
- Salmon Eaters
- Travel in larger family groups
- Critically endangered [Curious to learn more? Save the southern resident killer whales]
Viewing these intelligent and empathetic animals is one of the most pure and raw things I have ever witnessed, which seems to be the common theme by travelers from around the world. Become mesmerized by the orcastra of the world’s largest dolphin as they feed and play while circling the island. The best place to view them from shore is at Lime Kiln Point State Park or whale watching by boat. Of all the wild animals either on this list or not, Killer Whales should be at the top of your travel bucket list. I urge you to not only embrace their captivating demeaner, but to also learn about the conservation of these majestic ocean dwellers, either from one of the many intelligent naturalists or via the Center for Whale Research.
If you’re traveling to San Juan Island, I encourage you to spot as many wildlife as possible- we are filled with them! If you found my corny jokes pawsitivly unbearable, please don’t let this stop you from discovering more than the ten animals on this list. San Juan is home to hundreds of species within diverse habitats around the islands and it is truly breathtaking.
Take a kayak out within the bioluminescence, catch a gorgeous sunset while viewing whales via boat, attend a University of Washington Marine Open Lab, or even explore the many hiking areas. Remember, the health of this wildlife is dependent on not only the ties between the land, water, and air, but how we impact it as well. Awareness within the conservation of each of these species and contributing mindful actions towards sustainability is the best way preserve them all.