Whale watching in the San Juan Islands

This was on Ann’s bucket list for our adventure as summit hosts here on Orcas Island. I was encouraging her to go, but hanging back for my own part at the expense. Then we found a hefty online discount for a tour boat out of North Beach, conveniently close to East Sound  just below Moran State Park.DSC_7854 It was such a good discount that we were a bit leery, but Outer Island Expeditions proved to be very capable, with fast comfortable boats and enthusiastic, well informed guides.

After the safety briefing, we were divided into two groups, and boarded onto some VERY fast boats. We were on our way, streaking north into Canadian waters. Our sister craft was smaller, lighter, and a bit faster, and took off ahead of us. Our craft had a larger group, and better shelter from the elements, which we greatly appreciated on the return run, chasing the sunset.DSC_7994

We saw many, many orcas whales in the island channels, but also some lovely lighthouses, and a number of interesting ships. A Canadian destroyer was working its way south past us, as well as several British Columbia ferries. DSC_7878The whale watching traffic kept a respectful distance from the pods of orcas, and their good manners were monitored by a Canadian wildlife Mountie. Our group was a delightful set of people, with the occasional exception of one lady who kept nagging our captain to “get closer”. With good grace, he explained that we were as close as was healthy for the whales, and to avoid a $10,000 fine. DSC_7870 Eventually she gave it a rest, and we got back to tracking parallel to the whales as they fed and played very close to the rocky shorelines.

The straits between these islands were close, and heavily trafficked, and at one point a pair of huge ferries appeared to be on a collision course. DSC_7939 They slipped past each other with perfect grace, giving us a spectacular show. I imagined that the din of their engines was a constant annoyance to the whales. Another close encounter yieldedDSC_7982 a great photo of a beautiful sailboat passing on our left.

However, the whales were first and foremost the main attraction.  Here are the best shots I was able to bring home, using a borrowed Nikon D-80 and a 70-200 mm zoom telescopic lens. (The camera body belongs to our neighbor Lori. Thanks, Lori, for making these pictures happen!)

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We had a considerable distance to travel as the sun got low, but our guides took the time to stop as they spotted sea lions swimming in the channel, and enjoying a late sunbath on some rock outcroppings ashore. DSC_8020The sunset was becoming spectacular, and the light it cast on a number of retired island light houses was splendid. DSC_8052We passed by the Patos Island light house, which was the last manned lighthouse in the United States when it was automated in 1974. DSC_8053We’ve heard that it is still occupied by volunteer hosts who provide tours in season. 🙂

It was time to make tracks for our harbor at North Sound, and the guides sped south with the sun dancing with the wake. Ann gamely rode in the stern for the view, DSC_8039with the wind and spray, and so did I for most of the ride. DSC_8036The light shifted from golden to blood red as the boat throttled back into the no-wake zone leading into the channel at Smugglers’ Bay.

It was a perfect outing. We were so pleased with the cheerful professionalism of the guides, and the company of our boat-mates. A bit chilled, but happy with the day, we went looking for dinner.

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3 thoughts on “Whale watching in the San Juan Islands”

  1. Wow, you guys have done more on Orcas in three weeks than I did in 2½ months! Really jealous of all the great hiking you have done. Great shots of the whales.

    1. We do get around, don’t we? Without any irony, Doug, you’ve devoted so much energy to projects and good work at the park, and for Friends of Moran; it’s really impressive. We all miss you here!

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