Splashed by Whales

Astounding Orca Watching in Washington's San Juan Islands
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The San Juans

The San Juans are a collection of two hundred or so islands that hang like a rocky crescent in Northern Puget Sound. This is the un-Washington, not your wet-Douglas-fir-blanket-kind-of place; it is distinguished by golden rock, bleached fields, and even the pine trees of the Methow Valley and Northern California.

This has created such a Grecian come-hither look that the islands have, in the opinion of locals, suffered an invasion of Californians in the 70's and 80's and Microsofties in the 90's. Waterfront land that once only drew taxmen is now bringing multiple-million-dollar bids—in cash.


The big male orca cleaved through the sea not fifty feet from the bow of our sea kayak. His bulbous head surfed by us—black, glistening, and blowing. I'd seen it before, at the Vancouver Aquarium's cement pool. But we were a mile offshore of Henry Island in northern Puget Sound, in a broad stretch of water officially listed as Haro Straits but known to locals as "the Orca Highway."

This animal was wild and free.

And very unexpected. Everyone—the ferry captain and guides—warned us our chances of seeing orcas were slim to none. The ferry captain hadn't seen an orca in a year. Neither of our guides, Andrew or Zach, had seen whales since the season began in June.

It had taken more than five hours to travel the thirty miles from Anacortes to Friday Harbor. Having arrived two hours early for the ferry—as suggested during summer season—I'd baked in the ferry parking lot, been serenaded by crying babies on one side, and rap music on the other. Because of early morning fog the ferry was an hour late. Actually, I suspect the entire San Juan Island universe runs on a clock democratically voted on by its citizens and subject to wild mood swings.

This creates a Brigadoon-like other world where no stoplight or fast-food joint exists. I wish I hadn't been so late. The ten-mile lane from Friday to Roche Harbor winds through a countryside of small farms and sunny fields—a road to take slow and enjoy. Roche Harbor, once the largest lime works west of the Mississippi, whose wharves held 20,000 barrels at a time and whose owner often hosted Teddy Roosevelt, has in the last fifty years been transformed into the Northwest's most handsome marine colony.

I'd arrived breathless, just before six, thirty minutes late for the day's last "sunset tour."

"You've got plenty of time," smiled the tanned kayaktress behind the counter on the San Juan Safari's float.

I checked over my essentials: sun block, wind breaker, binoculars, camera, extra film, water bottle. Three hours paddling during the dinner hour might make one hungry. I ran up the plank to the little store and bought a candy bar. I looked longingly at the mocha and ice cream booths just beyond the yellow brick road, but both had lines and there was no more time to wait.

The turquoise-topped sea kayaks, two and even three holers, were lined up in their customized narrow berths. Twenty people of all sizes, shapes, and ages began to slip on spray skirts, buckle up life jackets, and take their positions—leaving just four of us on the dock.

A young hunk was telling me of the small town in Michigan where he came from when an older woman grabbed his arm and announced, "We're going together."

It was like being the last chosen for square dancing in third grade. But this was my lucky day and as we paddled out of the bay I learned my partner, Inez, was a dancer from Paris.

She was also the wife of one of our guides. Somewhere, it seems, in the job description under guide are the following requisites: young, handsome, and patient. Above all, patient.

As we mastered our kayak's rudder and double-bladed paddles, tried to avoid dock, pilings, larger craft and each other, Zach, our guide, estimated he'd been rammed by guests at least once each trip.

By the time we'd slipped out of the harbor's maze and assumed a rough formation as a pod, most of us, even the parents and children, had mastered the basics.

Inez, in front, established a rhythm and, like dancing, I followed her lead, adding a longer stroke and twist at the end to help us glide. No wind left the water glassy. It was a beautiful evening, rare this particular summer, and the sky was robin's egg blue and accented by cloud feathers.

I expected the sunset would be the high points of this excursion. Just off Henry Island we schooled up in a raft of kelp, much like sea otters once did in the Pacific. Andrew, our other guide—with a masters in zoology—gave us a brief lecture. As a native, the most startling piece of information was that this almost two-acre mat of bull kelp was just one year's crop. Every winter, storms scoured it off the rocks and blew it up on the beaches.

Looking around, we spotted a head lying very still amidst the bobbing kelp bulbs. A seal. On the shore side, a river otter darted underwater. While it is difficult to outfish seals and otter, this is where I would look for rockfish and ling cod.

On shore, above an inviting sandy beach, stood a cedar cabin. Two flags, Canada's and the United States, flew above it. Surrounding this picture at about fifty feet intervals were no trespassing signs attached to trees and rocks.

We'd passed a similar retreat with a 'for sale' sign.

"Two and a half million," Zach said, arching his eyebrows. "I'm going to buy it with my tips."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 4 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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