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Exotic Deer of Spieden Island

Not far from Roche Harbor is a unique island that is home to some very unique animals. Spieden Island, a narrow island nearly 3 miles wide, is just north of San Juan Island and has quite the storied history.

Though currently a private island with no public access, the island had an era as an exotic game hunting ground in the 1970’s and 80’s. A variety of species including birds and land mammals were brought in for the sporting pleasure of visitors. The islands tenure as a hunting ground came to an end, but not for it’s extant 4 legged residents: mouflon sheep from Corsica, fallow deer from Europe, and Sika deer from Japan.

Sheep & deer graze on a sunny fall day.

It is quite an experience to see these animals up close. All you need is a boat. In the summer our local wildlife tour partner, San Juan Outfitters, offers boat and kayak tours and often pass near the island, allowing guests an up-close view.

The island itself is quite the geological anomaly, stretching east to west with the south-facing side barren and north side covered in a dense forest. The animals come out to graze the angled meadows of the south side.

Female Mouflon sheep

The three species are very different from the common game of San Juan Island: the black-tailed deer. Far and away the most common are fallow deer. The males grow a beautiful set of webbed antlers every fall and look similar to reindeer.

Almost as common but maybe even more breathtaking are the mouflon sheep. As opposed to deer which shed their antlers annually, these creatures have horns and they are not shed. You can generally tell the elder males by the length of their horns.


Last but not least are the elusive Sika deer. The smallest of the three game species to call Spieden Island home, these furry animals are dark brown and vastly outnumbered by the mouflon sheep and fallow deer so congrats if you see some!

A male sika deer with its mini antlers

The animals spend their entire lives on this island and have become quite accustomed to exploring all it’s nooks and crannies, including navigating the steep cliffs for a chance to munch on some bull kelp that washed up.

Yummm… kelp

If you get the chance, we highly recommend a visit along the shore of Spieden Island. Besides the four-legged residents, there are a number of other species you are likely to see including harbor seals, Steller sea lions (winter only), eagles, and a variety of seabirds and ducks.

Bald eagles search for fish in the nearby waters
A group of harlequin ducks buzzes by

Be sure to respect the wildlife and stay a safe distance away to not disturb them. The animals of Spieden are easily startled by fast-moving vessels as well as those that get too close to shore.

Not a bad life