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The San Juan Islands, an archipelago of 172 named islands northwest of Seattle, Washington, in the Salish Sea, are home to a vast and diverse population of birds, mammals and other marine life. Seals use the shorelines to give birth. Birds nest. Rare plants grow. The habitat is so important to local wildlife that 83 rocks, reefs and islands in the archipelago — more than 182 hectares altogether — were in 1960 designated as the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Black oystercatchers and rhinoceros auklets are among the birds you’ll find here. To get close to them and other wildlife, however, you’ll need to be adventurous. Most of the islands in the refuge are isolated and off-limits; you must remain at least 182 meters off shore. Only two islands — Matia and Turn — are open to visitors; each has a campground and hiking trails. Both are accessible only by boat.

However, you can see a lot of the wildlife, including orcas, from the Washington State Ferries that travel to each of the four main San Juan Islands: Lopez, Orcas, San Juan and Shaw. Ferries leave from Anacortes, 128 kilometers north of Seattle.