Guaranteed Whale Watch Tours from 5 Departure Locations
A passion for whales and wildlife.
I have cruised from the Bering Sea to Mexico, New York to Florida, the British Virgin Islands to Grenada, and have spent lots of time in Hawaii, but there is nothing that beats the Pacific Northwest. We have a huge variety of wildlife, calm water, and world class scenery. Our year-round tours allow us to share this incredible area with guests from around the world
Island Adventures opened its doors in 1996, but it all started in 1974...
I was fishing with my dad on the west side of San Juan Island. The sky was clear, the water calm, and not another boat in sight. Knowing very little about whales or what was about to happen, I just watched quietly. A group of Orcas were swimming right toward us. I remember thinking “What if we hook one?” and “What if they hit the boat?” Then before I knew it they were directly under us. I was looking over the side when one of the animals rolled to one side, looked up, and made eye contact with me! It felt like time had stopped for an instant and that he/she could see right through me. That’s when Island Adventures was born.
Growing up as the son of a Fish and Wildlife enforcement officer had its benefits. Having bear cubs staying at our house, feeding baby deer with a bottle, or watching my dad force feed Harbor seal pups with a tube seemed completely normal to me. I was learning by osmosis—learning a great deal more than I realized at the time.
Working with passengers for hire also started at a young age. At 15 yrs old I worked as a deck hand on a local charter fishing boat. I loved being on the water every day in the summer but had no idea where it would take me. When I started college I still had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. I studied business and realized that I had no money. The next summer I went to Alaska on a fishing boat where I learned a lot about larger boats, seamanship, and a good work ethic. I enjoyed the work and it was very lucrative for a 19-year-old kid. That winter I met the girl who would become my wife and the idea of stepping off the planet (going to Alaska) became a lot less desirable. Though I did make a few more trips north, I knew my future was not picking fish and throwing crab pots.
I found my next career step a little closer to home. My future wife (Jennifer, marine biology student at WWU) and I were hired on as naturalist and senior deck hand, respectively, with a company called Victoria San Juan Cruises. Their 80’ tour boat guided passengers from Bellingham to Victoria, BC in the summer months and we very much enjoyed working for and learning from the management and crew (perhaps a “Thank You” is appropriate here). I had some great mentors—and that’s when I realized my dream of owning my own company. With all of the sea time I had accumulated throughout those last few years I had qualified, tested, and earned my first captain’s license that winter.
Bellingham Salmon Charters
Between college and the expenses of life as a 20-year-old, most of the money I had made in Alaska was gone. But I took what was left, together with a loan from my parents, and Bellingham Salmon Charters was born in the spring of 1993. My first year in business was done as a one-man band. After fishing all day I would return phone calls from home in the evening. That next year I had a larger, more comfortable boat built so that I could more easily take two trips a day. I worked 12 to 20 hour days and booked trips via cell phone and loved every minute of it!
By 1995 Bellingham Salmon Charters had a great reputation. I was very proud of the company that I had created but it was at maximum growth potential. I wanted to carry more passengers and that required a larger boat. There was also more and more demand for whale watching and sightseeing tours so at the end of that season Bellingham Salmon Charters was sold so that I could start a new company.
Jennifer, who had now graduated from Western and was working as a biologist, thought I was taking a ride on the crazy train when I asked her to quit her job and start a whale watching company with me in Anacortes. I found out later that my friends and family also thought I was nuts! We chose Anacortes because it is a great departure point to see the whales, there was very little competition, and it was where we wanted to live. The port of Anacortes allowed us to build a small ticket office at the marina and I found an old wooden charter boat that was priced to sell. It had two broken rings and a cracked head; a lot of work needed to be done before we could carry our first passenger. When we started it up to bring her home there was so much black smoke that the Port Townsend fire department showed up! But come springtime we were ready—we had a rebuilt engine, new paint job and 25 thousand brochures to distribute. Island Adventures was in business. Many people didn’t think we’d last through the first summer, however, many people did and we thank them for that.
That first year we offered sport fishing and whale watching trips with the 31 passenger vessel Island Adventure, alternating days of the week. We also had two small aluminum boats to rent out for fishing and crabbing. It was exciting to have some success during that first year. We caught a lot of fish, saw a lot of whales, and the rental boats hit a lot of docks. I still love talking to some of our repeat customers that came out with us that first year on the Island Adventure!
In September of that same year we found a 45’ charter boat for sale in Depoe Bay, Oregon. She would make a great whale watching boat up here in the San Juans. Without thinking too long I jumped in my truck and headed to Oregon. The boat seemed perfect and was the next logical step for our future. She was larger, faster, and more comfortable for passengers. We decided to buy her—now we had to bring her home. The trip up the coast was great, luckily, and we saw the Orca whales near San Juan Island before the boat even got to see her new home. We took that as a positive sign! So now we had another winter project! Among other improvements we extended the upper deck to carry passengers, replaced all railings, added new electronics, and gave her a completely new paint job. After spending every penny we had and all the bank would loan us for the remodel, the Island Explorer was ready for the 1997 season. The new boat would allow us to carry more people comfortably and improve our whale sighting success rate because of her speed.
1997 through 1999
During the ‘97 season we ran two boats. The Island Explorer ran whale watching tours 7 days a week while the Island Adventure ran fishing trips 7 days a week. At the end of this season we converted the Island Adventure into a better whale watching boat by adding an upper viewing deck. In 1998 we ran two whale watching trips per day but most of our people wanted to be on the new boat so I had an idea…
We sold the Island Adventure and replaced the engine in the Island Explorer. This made her faster, fast enough to run two trips per day from Anacortes—using one boat. It was nice to simplify things. The 1999 season was a huge success because we were focused on what we do best—Whale Watching. Our whale watching program continued to improve and we were being recognized by our industry colleagues as one of the top tour companies in the San Juan Islands
Our first child was born in the middle of our season—impeccable timing on our part…Andrew came to us on July 1st, 1999. We actually got through the season just fine with a newborn. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have to!
In 2000 we set a new standard by offering a guaranteed whale watching trip and leased another vessel, the 56’ Viking Star, so that we could run 3 trips per day. We wanted to test the waters for buying a new, larger boat. Our sighting success improved to about 90% and on the rare day we didn’t see whales we wanted people to come back again for free. It was another very successful year and we were anxious to improve our product even more.
At the end of the ‘99 season I saw that we would outgrow the Island Explorer and by late 2000 we had. It was time to search for another whale watching boat. We put on paper all the things we wanted out of a new boat: adequate size (but not too big), more speed, medium passenger capacity, good layout, and how much we could spend. After searching from California to Alaska we couldn’t find what we were looking for. Maybe building a new boat was the answer? While exploring our options we ran across an ad in a trade magazine for a charter boat that looked perfect. The only problem was that she was in New York! The boat was too big to train or truck and my wife wouldn’t let me drive her around through the Panama Canal. We had just about given up when the previous owner told us about a shipping company that delivers boats by dry-dock ship all over the world. We were very excited! Dockwise Yacht Transport happened to have openings on its voyage from Florida to Vancouver, B.C. in March.
On Thanksgiving Day Jennifer and I flew to New York for a 36-hour stay. We looked over the boat and took a ride—she was even nicer than we had hoped. On the way home we talked ourselves into buying her and we reluctantly put the Island Explorer up for sale. After a month or so of negotiation we finalized the deal and started planning the voyage to bring her home. One of our captains, Jeremy, and I joined the previous owner and two of his crew in New York on January 29th, 2001. We set out for Florida breaking a thin sheet of ice on the bay as we motored out. It took about 8 days travel down the East Coast, using the Intracoastal Waterway about half of the time and the open ocean the other half. What an experience! She stayed in Florida for about a month, waiting for the yacht transport departure date. We were able to spruce her up a bit in the warm south Florida weather before bringing her home. The Island Explorer II arrived in Vancouver, BC on April 9th and ran her first Orca Whale Watching trip on April 21st, 2001.
The Island Explorer II is 65’ long, 23’ wide, and USCG certified to carry 102 passengers. She is also one of the fastest boats in the local fleet, but more importantly she is a superior whale watching vessel. She is kinda like the Safeco Field or the Key Arena—there isn’t a bad seat in the house! As you can see we are very proud of her.
In 2001 I felt that our whale watching tours rivaled any other around the world. We have managed to grow into one of the largest (in terms of # passengers carried) whale watching companies without forgetting what is important: taking one trip at a time and making each one the best it can be. We are dedicated to providing the best whale and wildlife viewing platform, educating our guests about the magnificent creatures native to the northwest, and imparting lifetime memories and a new appreciation for the wildlife that call the San Juan Islands home.
The 2002 season was very smooth after making more improvements to the boat all winter we started running tours earlier than ever. It was mid-March when we started looking for Gray whales, but to our luck and surprise we had Orcas nearly every day. If J pod was not around the transients were. K and L pod showed up earlier than expected and with plenty of Minke whales around we had a lot of fun during spring season.
We guarantee whale sightings on every trip. This means if you don’t see a whale of some kind you receive a “Just a Fluke” pass to come again for free. We can do this because of our high success rate. Somewhere in June I realized we had only given out passes on one day (it was to rough to go to the straits) and realized this had the potential to be the best season ever. At the end of the season we operated 198 whale watching trips and only missed seeing whales 3 days. That is over a 98% success rate. We always say that the only true guarantee is Sea World (they have them penned up), but in 2002 we were pretty close.
We can thank the Island Explorer II for this high success rate. Her speed and comfort make it possible for us to provide the trip we have always dreamed of. There is a way-point in our GPS that is north of Sturgeon Bank off the city of Vancouver, B.C. that is labeled “Go home Yankee”. To our knowledge this is further north than any other American whale watching boat has gone. We were a little late home that day but we saw Orcas!
The fourth member of our pod was born October third, 2002. Amy Renee Aggergaard was just over 6 pounds and looks a lot like her Grandpa Jim! What incredible blessings Andrew and Amy are! We are looking forward to watching them grow and learn.
After a two year vacation on Orcas Island, the Island Explorer came home in late 2002. There was an increased demand for an afternoon trip from Anacortes and the Island Explorer will fill this role quite well. She joined the Island Explorer II in our daily whale watching schedule from Cap Sante Marina for the 2003 season. This should make those of you who were upset with Shane for selling this boat two years ago very happy. This season was our best to date! The afternoon tour was a great success. In addition to our whale watch program we added a Deception Pass Sunset Cruise on the Island Explorer II. After the summer season we once again sold the smaller Island Explorer to Dave Patterson of Deep Sea Charters. Dave uses her for dive tours in the San Juan Islands. It’s great to see her come and go from Cap Sante Marina, still making people happy!
In January of 2004 we began remodeling our new facility on Commercial Avenue (the main drag in town). How exciting! In just a few short months our new office was transformed beautifully into the Island Adventure Center - which now offers whale watching, kayak tours, and a large gift shop. We began our season in March, 2004 watching Gray whales and were lucky enough to see Humpbacks on a couple of days and Orcas more often than usual in the early season.
In May we became very focused on Orcas, seeing them nearly everyday. In mid June the boat moved out to Skyline Marina on the west side of Fidalgo Island. We were able to bring back a very popular trip from the 2000 season—Sunset with the Whales. At the end of the 2004 season we had continued the amazingly high whale sighting success rate of over 95% (205 out of 210 in 2004, and 619 out of 638 from 2002 thru 2004).
The crew loved the Skyline location so much we decided to start the 2005 season there in early March. This departure location saves us an hour of run time on each tour, allowing us more quality time with the whales and other wildlife. 2005 is the start of our 10th season running whale watching tours from Anacortes. This spring has been incredible for Gray Whale sightings so far and there are 4 new orca calves spread out between the three pods (J, K, & L). We’re looking forward to our best season yet! In the fall of 2005 we plan to expand our tours to Seattle, as the orcas frequent the waters of Puget Sound in November and December. We’ll be moored at Bell harbor—right downtown on the waterfront.
Winter Season 2005-2006
Our Seattle program was a success! Island Adventures now runs the longest whale watching season (March–December) on the west coast! We saw the resident orcas of J, K, and L pods often during our south Puget Sound tours and we were able to help local researchers in locating the whales, photographing them, and identifying new calves born that winter.
Late in 2005 we purchased a super fun, go-fast, 40’ high-speed aluminum foil-assisted catamaran to add to our tour options for the 2006 season. The Island Whaler will operate up to three whale watch tours per day, adding to the two trips on the Island Explorer II—for a total of 5 trips per day!!
Island Whaler/Island Explorer II: 2006
In March, the Gray whales showed up like clockwork in Saratoga Passage. We had some amazing tours with the Grays this spring and also saw our resident orcas early on in the season. Both vessels ran trips and even though the Island Whaler is an open boat, we provided comfort suits for our guests to keep them warm. It’s an exhilarating ride, cruising at 30 knots in a convertible! Our new vessel was a big hit this year, receiving a ton of positive feedback from our customers.
We are definitely fortunate to have each season be better than the last. Continuing our pattern, 2006 was the best ever for whale sightings, variety of wildlife, tour departures and convenient schedules. We’ve run over 500 trips so far since March 2006 and have seen whales on over 96% of them! Currently (Nov. ’06), we are sighting Humpback whales that frequent the waters near Victoria, BC in the fall with continued whale sighting guarantees!
In late 2006 we decided to sell the Island Whaler to one of our captains whose dream was to create Deception Pass Tours (www.deceptionpasstours.com). This really is the perfect boat for a one hour Deception Pass tour, speeding through the current-swirled pass for an amazing view of the bridge from an open-top platform! We were sad to see this fun, exhilarating boat go — but we knew it was the right thing to do.
Island Explorer 3: 2007
Though we were not actively searching for a new vessel in late 2006, we came across an ad in a trade magazine for a whale watching boat that was located in Waikiki, Oahu. The boat was not in great condition as it had been docked there for some time, not operating for the past year. It turns out that it was a repossession and the bank was looking to sell her for pennies on the dollar. We weren’t sure that we wanted to take on such a project again. After taking a short 3 day trip to Hawaii and looking over the vessel, we knew how much time, effort, and money it would take to get her back in ship shape. In order to make it worth our while we had to make a crazy low offer. Low and behold, a few days later, the bank accepted! Oh, now we were in for it. We’ve always been of the mindset that “things happen for a reason” so we just followed our instincts. Shane flew back to Oahu with our mechanic Jeff from North Island Boat for a two week inspection/light overhaul of the engine room. With some TLC, this boat could be one of the best whale watching platforms on the west coast! As with the relocation of the Island Explorer II from New York, we lucked out again with the shipping option from Hawaii to Washington State. Aloha Cargo Transport, a Seattle based company, was able to fit the Island Explorer 3 onto a barge that was departing Oahu in mid-December! Though it was very expensive, it was the safest way to get the boat to her new home in Anacortes. She was not ready to make an ocean crossing and I, the wife, was not ready to let Shane do it! Perhaps on a vessel with a new or overhauled engine room, but not this one.
After a two week crossing, the Island Explorer 3 arrived in Seattle on December 23rd, 2006. On the 27th she was on her way, under her own power, to Anacortes. She would receive quite a face lift between the months of January through May 2007 including engine rebuilds, plumbing overhaul, intense cleaning of every corner, interior remodel, major exterior painting, and many other improvements.
Meanwhile, the Island Explorer II began our 2007 season running Gray Whale tours from Everett in March. It was great to have the boat docked right there — the grays come to the area to feed in the crustacean rich waters near Everett every spring so getting out to see them from the Everett Marina is a piece of cake! The Explorer II operated orca tours from May until early June, 2007 then was unexpectedly taken out of service due to an accident – thankfully NOT resulting in any major injuries to our passengers. This was a very trying and emotional time for us…
Because we believe that everything happens for a reason, we were able to move on (after several weeks of grieving) and continue a very successful 2007 season using our new vessel the Island Explorer 3. We are happy to report that the Island Explorer II sold to some nice folks in Newport Beach, CA. Next time we visit southern California we’ll be sure to pay her a visit!
We ran tours from Anacortes with the Island Explorer 3 until November 24th, 2007 then called it a season. Over the winter we worked on a few big projects that included a totally new, redesigned website, a new 64 page color wildlife viewing pocket guide (complimentary to each guest), a new power point presentation for use onboard via our 42” flat screen display (good job Kate Janes!), a newly remodeled wheelhouse with new autopilot (for our great captains!), and many other improvements to the boat. As you can see, we are perfectionists. We know that perfection really can’t be reached. It’s been 16 years since we started our own business – we’ve never stopped reaching for it!
2008 – Island Explorer 3
We’ve been gearing up once again for a spectacular whale watching season this year. Our first tour is on Saturday, March 8th, 2008, departing from Everett, WA. We’ll watch Gray whales through May 8th then back to Anacortes for our main season Orca Whale tours. J pod has been sighted in the area already; K & L pods are off the coast somewhere between Washington and mid-California feeding on salmon. K & L usually return to the San Juan Islands in May, meeting up with J pod who typically stays closer to home. WE ARE READY for our best season yet.
We’d like to say thanks to our family, friends, guests, crew members, and colleagues for your continued support throughout the years. We are forever grateful for the ability to provide quality wildlife viewing opportunities for so many great folks from around the world.
2009 – 2013
Wow, I cannot believe it has been so long since the last update to our story! Let’s just say 2008 through 2014 has been crazy busy and extremely fun. I now have more gray hair and less of it!
2014 – Island Explorer 4
We have been watching the humpback and transient killer whale populations grow every year in the central Strait of Juan de Fuca, so it was time to put a boat in the middle of it. This made Port Angeles the perfect choice for an additional departure location.
After a long search with multiple trips to the East Coast, we found the perfect boat for our Port Angeles program, the Speedy Express. She was found in Captree State Park, the same harbor where we found the Island Explorer 2 many years before.
The Speedy Express, soon to be the Island Explorer 4, cruised down the Intercoastal Waterway to Florida where we loaded her onto a ship en route to Nanaimo, B.C. One month later the remodel of the IE4 had begun. Five months, after that she was ready to run tours.
Island Explorer 4 quickly became the favorite whale watching boat on the Olympic Peninsula. The Port Angeles program was successful from day one!
2015 – 2016
In 2016, our Anacortes and our Port Angeles tours both needed more capacity. This was the opportunity to build a new boat, so an expansion plan was laid out.
We committed to building the Island Explorer 5 in December of 2015 to be completed in March of 2017. The new boat will be in Anacortes, the Island Explorer 3 will spend its summer in Port Angeles, and the Island Explorer 4 will make a new home in La Conner
2017 – The beginning of a new era in whale watching.
In the winter of 2016-17, we brought back a tour we offered years ago in Downtown Seattle. In recent years, the whale trends have lured us back to the Puget Sound. We are exciting to offer this winter whale watching experience to our guests.
In the spring of 2017 we will move our Port Angeles location to the Landing Mall with a private 140 ft dock and 1,200 sq. ft. gift shop. In April of 2017, Island Explorer 5 goes into service in Anacortes and Island Explorer 4 will start the La Conner tours. Island Adventures is officially a year-round tour company!
Our philosophy is still the same as it was in 1996, “run great tours at a reasonable price”!
Thank you for supporting Island Adventures for the past 20 years.
-Shane and Je
Great Deals in 2017!
Adults save up to $30 off any tour by booking over 30 days in advance or by taking a Wednesday tour. There are discounts for AAA, AARP, seniors 65+, military, or students with an ID. Midweek deals can be found March-June and September-November. Click below for more information on how to save big in 2017!