Whale Tales

Exploring the orca world

Photos by Rachel Coward

On a crisp afternoon, a camera snapped rapidly as passengers balanced on a rocking Victoria Clipper that had traveled hours for a view of a killer whale in the wild.

Captain Jason Mihok guided the boat to a small family of orcas near Georgina Point, B.C. Together, the whales would dive beneath the choppy water only to resurface for a few moments. They’d take a breath, glide with their massive fins above the surface and then disappear into the deep blue.

“I got goosebumps when I saw the dorsal fin go up,” said Miguel Jimenez, who traveled from Austin, Texas. “It’s like they did it just for us.”

The Puget Sound becomes a temporary home for many orca whales during the spring and summer months. From May 22-Oct. 4, the Victoria Clipper offers whale and marine life excursions led by knowledgeable naturalists. It’s one of the best rides through Washington’s beautiful waters. The Victoria Clipper is the only commercial whale-watching boat that departs from Seattle. In 2014, 97 percent of its San Juan Island day trips saw whales.

20140905_WhaleWatching_0233The journey begins with a 7:45am departure. The Clipper glides through the water, leaving a rainbow of mist in its wake. While the wildlife is perhaps the trip’s biggest draw, there is a ton of rich history embedded in the Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands that the naturalist explains over the boat’s speakers. For example, the Pig War over the San Juan Islands, which actually was an argument over a shot boar, nearly caused a war between the U.S. and Great Britain in 1859. There’s also more obscure fun facts, like until 2004, travelers could buy beer from nuns wearing floor-length habits on Shaw Island. They worked 16-hour days meeting ferries and running a general store.

The Clipper has a top deck where you can view the tranquil swirling water and the vacant beaches that dot the San Juans. The boat travels under Deception Pass, a beautiful narrow waterway that funnels through two vertical cliffs. It’s easy to spot harbor seals on the way to the whales — because they’re nocturnal feeders, you can expect to see many of them bathing in the sunshine or huddling together to keep warm during the day. If the tide is low, keep your eyes out for sunflower sea stars. They’re colorful creatures, ranging from orange to purple, and have up to 24 arms. And don’t forget to look up. Bald eagles are common in the San Juans. Did you know they actually can swim with their wings if they catch a fish that’s too heavy to fly off with?

Around 11:15am, the Clipper docks at Friday Harbor before traveling out to visit the whales. Most trips find orcas along the San Juan Islands but the captain can travel as far as the Gulf Islands for a glimpse of these incredible creatures. On this afternoon whales were spotted at around 1:15pm. When they surfaced, the boat erupted with the sound of camera shutters. The orcas are certainly the celebrities of the sea.

20140905_WhaleWatching_0560“They’re superstars; they know it too,” said Trecca Wilson of Oklahoma.

Alena Jimenez of Austin said she wishes she would have put her cellphone down when the whales came up.

“They were beautiful. I wish I looked at them more than try to take pictures of them, because then you look at the pictures and they’re these little dots,” she said.

The Clipper’s naturalist, Justine Buckmaster, says that in her eight years of whale watching she’s seen only one great cellphone photo of a whale. But despite the scrambling for a great shot, passengers were moved by the orcas’ majestic black and white bodies.

“It amazes me that something so big can be so graceful,” said Jimenez. “When you try to put these guys in Sea World they are just out of place… they belong in the wild because nothing we build will be up to their scale.”

After the whale viewing, the Clipper circles back to Friday Harbor around 2pm and passengers have about two hours to tour the little town. Darling boutiques and coffee shops are open right by the dock. If you travel a little up the road, you’ll discover a few more gems locals frequent.

After a long day, the Clipper cruises back into Seattle around sunset. The pink and orange sky illuminated behind the city’s skyline and Mount Rainier was among the prettiest views of the trip. For traveler Wilson, the journey was one for the books.

“It was everything I dreamed of and probably more,” she said.

The Victoria Clipper will run its Whale Watching and Sealife Search Day Trips from May 22–Oct. 4. Prices range from $99-$138 per adult. Children ages 1-11 are $25, but the trip is not recommended for children under 6.

20140905_WhaleWatching_0511About the Puget Sound Orcas

Is there more than one type of orca in the Puget Sound? Yes. There are two: transient orcas that travel between Alaska and California and resident orcas that travel shorter distances in larger pods. Itís believed that transient orcas and resident orcas donít socialize or breed with one another. In fact, they seem to avoid each other.

Resident pods. The orcas that live in the area are known as the Southern Resident Community and travel in three pods known as the J, K and L pods. They often take care of each other like big families. Theyíre one of the most-studied groups of orcas.

Who is Granny?
She is believed to be more than 100 years old, the oldest known killer whale. She is also the leader of the J pod.

How can you tell a male from a female? A femaleís dorsal fin is only about 2 feet tall, while a male isgrows up to 6 feet tall.

Are orcas smart? Yes. Theyíre among the smartest animals on Earth. Following the sperm whale, orcas have the second largest brain of all marine mammals. They belong to the Delphinidae family and communicate in local dialects. There is no evidence that an orca in the wild has ever killed a person. Theyíre known as being curious creatures. Captain Mihok has had orcas approach the boat with their caught prey as if to show it off, like a dog or cat would.

What to See in Friday Harbor

  1. Market Chef is a favorite café among locals. It’s perfect for salads and sandwiches. Eating lunch here is like eating in your neighbor’s backyard — there are toy trucks for kids scattered around simple patio furniture. It has inside seating as well, but did you know Friday Harbor gets half the rainfall of Seattle? Market Chef serves produce sourced from island farms and refreshing home-brewed ice tea.
  2. You’ve probably never seen anything quite like Serendipity: The Used Book Place. Inside, the books are stacked high to the ceiling like the library at Hogwarts, but on a much smaller scale. The books are marked half-off of cover prices. Pick up some reading for the boat ride home.
  3. Pelindaba Lavender is a magical place. If you love the scent of lavender, this stop is a must. It has every kind of lavender product, from cleaning supplies to lotions to alcohol-free lavender hand sanitizer. Who knew lavender mustard was a thing?
  4. Sandpebble is an adorable boutique with fun kitchen finds, cookbooks and Paddywax hand-poured candles. In the back of the store are some great clothing finds.
  5. In need of a caffeine boost? Crows Nest Coffee Shoppe has all your typical coffee orders as well as some more obscure pours like its bulletproof coffee (coffee whipped with grass-fed ghee and coconut oil instead of cream). If you’re looking for a warm treat for the kids, try the steamers with housemade flavoring.
  6. Some kids will need to stretch their legs after hours on the boat. At A Place to Play, they can captain their own vessel, engineer a train, build a wall maze or drive a moped for $7.50. Adult supervision is required.
is the managing editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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