San Juan Islands Wildlife and Marine Mammals

wildlife on a san juan islands sea kayaking tripSan Juan Islands Wildlife Facts

From wolf eels to the largest octopus in the world, the water around the San JUan Islands literally teems with life. If you visit during the summer time, be sure to take a night stroll or paddle and look for the eerie shimmer of phosphorescence glowing in the water. Throughout the year many marine mammals frequent the islands. Some of the more common mammals include:

Minke Whales

This small baleen whale is a resident of the Salish Sea, but in the San Juans is most commonly seen during mid summer – early autumn.

Dall’s Porpoise

This species of porpoise is the Ferrari of the porpoise/dolphin world capable of traveling at speeds upwards of 30 mph. Look for their characteristic rooster-tail splash and triangular fin. They are sometimes called “false killer whales” due to the similar markings ie. black & white coloring they have in common with their larger cousins the resident killer whales.

Harbor Porpoise

This porpoise was once a bit more common in inland waters and is quite shy of humans. They grow to six feet in length are gray-brown in color and have triangular dorsal fins with a longer leading edge than the dall’s porpoise.

Harbor Seals

The most prolific of mammals in the islands, harbor seals are common along all coastlines. During the summer months in particular harbor seals spend a lot of time “hauled-out” on rocks where they give birth to their young. Harbor seals are rather small and are spotted gray in color.

Other Marine Mammals

This past year was interesting in terms of the number of rare sightings of other marine mammals not typically found in the San Juan Islands. Unusual observations included gray whales, a young humpback whale, pilot whales, California sea lions, and transient whales.

Deer on San Juan Island


With the natural beauty of the marine environment from the confines of a kayak so “up close and personal” it is easy to overlook scenic landforms along the waters edge. The islands are home to hundreds of species of birds including the largest breeding population of bald eagles in the continental United States.

Land Animals Deer on San Juan Island

On land, black-tail deer, silver fox, raccoons, and wild turkey also frequent the islands. One unusual feature is a species of prickly pear cactus, which is found on the sunny southern exposures of the islands. Scientists theorize that river otters introduced the cactus to the San Juans by transporting quills in their fur all the way from the rivers of Eastern Oregon, up the Washington coast and into Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. The cacti are only found as high up as the river otters haul out. To this day river otters are fairly prolific in the archipelago.

The land and the surrounding waters of the San Juan Islands are host to an absolutely stunning array of amazing creatures. Sea kayaking provides the perfect vehicle for viewing these “wonders of the universe” in their own environment.

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