One of the things I most looked forward to in the San Juan Islands was kayaking with the whales. When I was in my twenties I saw a photo of a kayaker looking over at a whale breaching and have wanted to do it since. So in search of the beautiful orcas we went.
But first, we checked out the beach and the iconic bridge at Deception Pass State Park.
And bought clams and Pacific Oysters (super fresh) from Taylor Shellfish Farms, who have been farming shellfish for five generations. This amazing place offers about five different varieties of oysters (some in different sizes), and other shellfish.
There was an eagle fishing right behind the Taylor dock. An impressive sight.
Mount Baker, 10,781 feet high, was our new backdrop. And there were the islands.
But back to the whales. There are three pods of orcas, an extended family, called the Southern Resident Killer Whales that are frequently seen in the area between the months of April to October. One of the pods frequents the area west of San Juan Island – and this was our kayaking destination.
We weren’t quite ready for taking our own kayaks in unknown ocean waters to try to find whales. So I researched weather for the best boating day and called to book a kayak tour for that day on San Juan Island. The flaw in my game plan was that the five hour kayak trip required that we take an early ferry out and a late one back. It was too long to leave Angel in the coach.
So we went with plan B and signed on with a shorter tour on a small motorboat, still avoiding the hugely crowded big boats. Captain Carli’s Whale Watch takes out a maximum of six people out of Friday Harbor on his small boat.
We walked on to the direct ferry to San Juan Island. It was a perfect day to be on a boat, and we had smooth sailing to the picturesque village of Friday Harbor.
The tour is very casual and laid-back, and Captain Carli is a very nice guy. It was so clear and calm that we could see Mount Rainier in the distance, with the Captain pointing out that this was a very rare treat.
And then we found the whales. They were by the shore near Lime Kiln State Park, giving onlookers from the shore a huge treat. Thus the nickname for the park, Whale Watching park.
But the boats have to stay 400 yards away from the whales on shore. And, because they are by the shore, you can only approach from one angle, so the boats were lined up at the 400 yard mark.
The whales were basically rounding the shore, clearly feeding. Captain Carli says that these resident whales have a distinct diet from other orcas, they feed mainly on salmon. That’s why they stay here and don’t migrate north. Gourmet whales.
This was the first time we saw orcas in the wild. They were very active, swimming along on the surface. So we could see their backs and fins very clearly.
Then they started playing, breaching, swimming on their backs and tail slapping. These guys were fun!
Captain Carli heard of another group of whales and recommended we move on. As we arrived and stopped at the appropriate distance, two of the whales headed in our direction and we got a closer look. But these were traveling and they passed by us pretty quickly.
We planned a second outing to San Juan Island, this time in our car, and with Angel along, to explore Friday Harbor and walk out by the shore at Lime Kiln Park, “one of the best places in the world to see whales from shore” as we had witnessed from the boat. But it was just before the fourth of July and the ferry was full. The next ferry was three hours later so we bailed on taking our car to any of the islands.
But we did walk on the ferry to Lopez Island with our bicycles.
Hector has always wanted to have his own island, and so Lopez Island was a must. And, since it’s the least hilly of the San Juan Islands, bicycling is very popular there. With no limits on bicycles, there’s no danger of not getting on the ferry and the fare is much cheaper.
It was a short outing, but the island is really pretty with lots of beautiful green fields on the way to the cute little village and harbor. We had lots of fun taking photos by all the “Lopez” places and events. We really felt right at home.
But visiting the San Juan Islands requires more advance research than we did – about ferry costs for different configurations (such as kayaks on top of the car – pretty expensive), and how the whale watching operator schedules coincide with the ferry schedules. And we also learned that we should avoid the ferry on peak times like the fourth of July.
And there is lots of great kayaking in the area, but we also realized that it’s important to really understand these waters to do it safely. Next time we will plan better. And there will be a next time.
For more information on the fascinating “Southern Resident Killer Whales”, click here.