San Juan Islands Boat Camping, Fishing, and Wildlife Viewing

By Ken Schultz

Apr 22, 2024

Orcas, humpbacks, sea lions, eagles, salmon, halibut, and phenomenal landscapes and seascapes highlight San Juan Islands boat camping, fishing, and wildlife

There’s something for everyone to enjoy when visiting the picturesque San Juan Islands. San Juan Islands boat camping, fishing, and wildlife viewing is among the best on the West Coast and worth an extended visit. Located in Washington and separating that state from Canada’s Vancouver Island, there are 172 named islands and reefs here, many of them within San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, and a plethora of parks. This adds up to stunning landscapes and recreational opportunities galore. Here are highlights of what San Juan Islands boat camping, fishing, and wildlife viewing can offer.


• Boating may be the best way to visit and explore the San Juans, not only for the sake of mobility and diverse experiences, but also because many islands have ecologically sensitive habitat and wildlife (birds and mammals) and are off-limits to human traffic. Indeed, in the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, only two islands (Matia and Turn) have public-use areas. The rest are closed to public access. The waters surrounding refuge islands are closed to watercraft within 200 yards of shoreline.

Kayaking is a good way to explore the San Juans, whether via guided tours or on your own. Strong currents warrant that you be an experienced kayaker, paddle with a group of equally proficient paddlers, and have the appropriate sea kayak.

• Boating with larger, motorized craft helps you navigate these waters more thoroughly and offers an opportunity for short- and long-term moorages, living onboard a suitable size vessel. Note that smaller vessels may allow for access to inlets and coves that larger vessels cannot navigate.

• Day and overnight charters, as well as San Juan Islands boat rentals, are available. Info about these and other aspects of visiting here, including San Juan Islands boat camping permits and advisories is available from the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. There are also marinas and services available in the region.

• Among boat camping San Juan Islands tips is the need to protect eelgrass when anchoring; therefore, anchor in waters deeper than eelgrass if not using a mooring buoy or dock.


• Salmon are the most glamorous saltwater species pursued with rod and reel in the San Juans, and are seasonally available. Bottom fishing for halibut is also popular and can be done year-round. Some other bottom species, like lingcod, are available, and charter operators also fish for Dungeness crabs and shrimp. Some operators combine fishing and wildlife watching.

• Freshwater fishing is also available in some places, such as the five lakes in Moran State Park on Orcas Island. Bass, cutthroat and rainbow trout, and kokanee salmon are the primary species.

Wildlife Viewing On or From the Water

• Whales are the main attractions, of course. Five species ply these waters, with orcas, humpbacks, and Minkes of special interest. The presence of these magnificent animals requires greater boating attention, and extensive whale watching guidelines have been developed to maximize human observation, enjoyment, and protection for these species, as well as to minimize their disturbance. Peak whale-watching time is mid-May through mid-September.

• Other sea mammals that inhabit the region include Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals, and river otters.

• Birdlife includes an abundance of bald eagles, as well as great blue herons, black oyster catchers, peregrine falcons, and an assortment of shorebirds. Rare diving bird species such as rhinoceros auklets and pigeon guillemots may be present, plus trumpeter swans, Canada geese, double-crested cormorants, and much more.

• Good binoculars are obviously a necessity for mammal and wildlife watching, and a spotting scope would be excellent for stable (mainly onshore) viewing.


If you want to feel a great connection to the sea and to assorted sea life, the San Juan Islands is a prime place to visit.

Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz was a longtime staff writer for Field & Stream magazine and is the former Fishing Editor of He’s written and photographed nineteen books on sportfishing topics, plus an annual fishing tips calendar, and his writing has appeared on various websites for more than two decades. His author website is