Lying off the northwest coast of Western Australia, the Buccaneer archipelago’s 1,000 islands were once part of the mainland but have been cut off by rising seas since the last ice age. Vegetation on them is scarce, except for tiny patches of rainforest and protective mangroves.
Set in the blue seas of the Indian Ocean, they are known for their beautiful, isolated sandy beaches, extreme tidal range and the extraordinary ‘horizontal waterfall’ in Talbot Bay, caused by the tidal water building up in front of the two narrow gaps leading to the ocean faster than it can flow through them, causing a build-up of up to 4 m (14 ft) of Turquoise water that rushes between the red rocks.
Despite the apparent lack of habitat more than 100 species of birds have been recorded here, as well as eleven species of snake, a variety of lizards, rock rats, marsupials, quolls, and bats. The crystal clear waters support corals, shellfish and small fish, sharks, swordfish, sea snakes and estuarine crocodiles.
There are numerous sacred sites on the islands, some of which are still in use.
A popular way to explore the islands in depth is on a guided sea safari, camping on a different beach each night.
When to visit:
Although the islands boast an average of 247 annual days of sunshine and low rainfall, winters can be windy and chilly, so they are an ideal May-September destination.
How to reach:
Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan (usually in that order) are reached by ferry from Anacortes. Guemes Island also has a ferry service from Anacortes, Fly to San Juan by light aircraft from Seattle.
- Orca-watching from Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island (May to September).
- The Panorama seen from the highest point in the San Juan Islands, Mount Constitution on Orcas Island – is said to be the most impressive view in Puget Sound.
- Shark Reef Sanctuary on Lopez Island, is a completely natural park with sensational cliff-top sea views. Total tranquillity on Shaw Island, where the only commercial operation is the general store run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.
You should know:
Some lesser San Juan Islands can tell their own story – for example, Barren Island, Cemetry Island, Justice Island, Picnic Island, Skull Island, South Finger Island or the Wasp Islands (named after a ship rather than the insect).