Population growth in the San Juan Islands has increased ground and water pollution, while legions of commercial and private whale-watchers disturb whales and other marine creatures. Overfishing and habitat destruction have severely limited (in some cases to extinction) wild runs of salmon, which force whales and other marine mammals to deplete local fish resources or leave the area to find food.
Standing on the deck of a Puget Sound ferryboat, gazing at the snowcapped peaks of the Olympic Peninsula, it seems odd to imagine the thickly strewn San Juan Islands surrounding your boat as mountain peaks themselves. But today this ancient range, submerged at the end of the last ice age, is simply dwarfed by those towering youngsters across the way.
Now here’s the twist: The Olympic range casts what’s called a “rainshadow” over the sound, blocking the rainfall that soaks most of the Northwest. As a result, the San Juan Islands are a rare mosaic of microclimates, some rainforest, some desert, often on the same islands. Here you’ll find rare and endangered plants, such as the brittle cactus, the naked broomrape, and the golden paintbrush, alongside patches of ferns, mosses, and lichens, and old-growth for-ests of cedar, hemlock, yew, and alder. These tiny specialized habitats are often unrecognized, tucked away in crevices of coastal cliffs, in a patch of grassland or small stand of trees. They’re not big enough to be marked as nature preserves—but they need to be preserved all the same.
The San Juan archipelago has 175 islands big enough to be given names; another 500 or so smaller outcroppings punctuate the waters in between, accessible only by boat. Ferries visit only four islands (San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw), and only those first three have tourist accommodations. For years, the San Juans preserved unspoiled habitats, with approximately 83 islands designated wildlife refuges. The San Juans have the largest breeding population of bald eagles in the United States, and they’re a magnet for migrating wildlife—not only orcas and minke whales (whale-watching expeditions set out from all the main harbors June–Sept), but also trumpeter swans, snow geese, and salmon. You’re likely to spot dall porpoises, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and brown river otters, too, especially if you venture around in a kayak.
Unfortunately, all this natural beauty may be the islands’ undoing. The word is out, and San Juan County has attracted so many new residents, its population has almost tripled since 1990. As more and more homes are crowded onto the islands, less land is open to shelter those fragile microclimates. Alien species such as red foxes and rabbits overrun some islands, crowding out native species. An upsurge in tourism is also a problem, as more hikers tramp through its parks and venture too close to seabirdnesting areas or the rocky coves where harbor seals bask. The popularity of boating around these islands has begun to wreak havoc with its off-shore eelgrass and kelp beds, so vital for sustaining marine life.
Visit the San Juan Islands if at all possible—but be the best sort of visitor you can. Stay on walking paths, observe beach closures, moor your boat only at desig-nated sites, and deal with eco-conscious tour groups. It’s the least a nature lover can do.