It’s not as if I have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, onto the whale-watching boat. But I consider myself a frugal traveler and I would be inclined, on occasion, to forego that annual expedition out to sea in search of our aquatic cousins. Hilary feels otherwise, and she’s invariably right, in so far as no two whale-watching trips are the same and every one we’ve taken has been eminently worthwhile.
"What’s so great about seeing a mess of whales?" you say. Or even a few? Or even the back of a single whale rising ominously above the surface?
For one thing, whales animate the sea. So do other aquatic species, I guess. But when you see a long string of salmon leaping out of the water, their silvery bodies glinting in the setting sun (as we did on the west side of Whidbey Island during our recent trip) you may find yourself thinking, “I wouldn’t mind catching a few of those for dinner.”
When you see an orca or a fin whale thirty feet beyond the gunwale of the boat, the impact is entirely different. For one thing, these creatures might well be bigger than the boat. It seems, at times, that they’re looking at you. Sometimes they arrive in pairs or groups, with offspring trailing behind, perhaps. Researchers speculate that they can communicate with one another across hundreds of miles of water. You start wondering where they’ve been recently, and what they might be thinking.
Seeing a whale, in short, evokes an alternative world just below the waves—graceful, harmonious, communitarian, and wise. It’s one we humans admire, and almost feel we can relate to.
Oceanographers paint a more complicated picture of whale-life, of course. One whale-watching skipper was recently overheard to remark: “If one more passenger tells me they want to be reincarnated as a whale, I’m going to puke.” But I’m referring here to an emotional effect that’s very real, albeit all but indescribable. Which may be why we find ourselves heading out to sea, again and again.
Our excursion left the dock at Port Townsend at ten a.m. in medium fog. Eavesdropping earlier at the office across from the dock, I learned that one couple taking the trip was from Austin, another from San Antonio.
The boat might have been forty feet long, most of it taken up by a cabin with an official capacity of seventy-six, though the thirty of us that spread ourselves out in the booths seemed to fill it up rather nicely. Out on deck, the walkways alongside the cabin were just wide enough for one person to stand upright while another squeezed by. The front deck, though tipped at a sharper angle, had ample room to stand and watch whatever might come leaping up out of the blue.
Our skipper introduced herself as Corey and explained as we left the harbor that our plan would be to head north across the Straights of Juan de Fuca toward San Juan Island, hoping to run across some transient orcas. The resident pods, which tend to make themselves scarce when the transients show up, hadn’t been sighted in weeks.
Hilary and I stood on the starboard rail for quite a while, watching the flotsam and jetsam go by. We also passed an assortment of gulls and black sea birds—pigeon guillemots and common murres. Further out, flocks of small brown-white birds occasionally flashed by that Lily, the mate, told us were red-necked phalaropes.”I just learned that last week,” she said.
At one point a large ship emerged from the fog a quarter-mile away, heading toward Puget Sound from the open ocean, and I began to wonder if our little boat had radar. Well, of course it did! All the same, I was curious. We were now a long ways from shore.
Fifteen minutes later we hadn’t seen any whales—or much of anything else—though the fog was beginning to lift. Cory stopped the boat, came out on deck, and dropped a hydrophone over the side to see if she could pick up some whales by sound. Nothing doing. Back on the bridge she kept us heading north and a few minutes later someone spotted a knife-like black fin sticking up out of the water off in the distance. Everyone hears the shout of excitement and pours out on deck. The fin vanished, but then another one popped up. Maybe the same one. Then there were definitely two.
As Hilary and I stood our ground on the front rail, whales began to appear on either side of the bow. We’d stumbled onto one of those elusive resident pods. Some were far off. In time, others surfaced twenty feet from the boat, swam under it, and reappeared on the other side. Not more than one or two were visible at any time. Often we’d see the gray behind the fin. Sometimes we’d see large parts of the body. And three or four of the orcas leaped entirely out of the water, exposing their put white undersides.
Other boats began to arrive from all directions. (The skippers radio to one another. Their joint livelihood depends on finding the whales.) Victoria, Friday Harbor, Anacortes—they were all present and accounted for. At one point I heard Corey say excitedly to Lily, “The resident pods have gone missing for three weeks…and for the first time this summer, I’m the one that found them!”
Corey is from Wisconsin. She’s been in Port Townsend for ten years—a relative newcomer. But the resident orcas of the Straights are so well known that Corey recognized one or two of them by the notches on their fins. “That’s L-87,” she’d say. Or, “See that little yellow one? He was born in May; he’s tagging along after his mother.” She finally came to the conclusion that we’d made contact with at least two of the resident pods. Maybe all three. (For a closer look at summer and fall orca sightings in the region, click HERE.)
Meanwhile, the fog had lifted, and we could see the sandy cliffs of San Juan Island, frosted on top with a row of scrawny evergreens, just a few hundred yards off to the north.
Whether the whales moved on or we drifted off, I‘m not sure. There are regulations against pursuing them relentlessly or getting too close, and we were due back in Port Townsend at two.
Most of the passengers went back inside for the hour-long trip back across the straight, but Hilary and I went outside once or twice to stare out across the gray expanses. The sea was pretty calm, though there’s always a lot of movement, what with the tides, the currents, and the wake of ocean-going vessels that may have passed by an hour ago.
The most amazing thing I saw during our return journey was a sea gull sitting on a chunk of cleanly cut log about a foot long. There’s nothing remarkable about that—except that I’d seen the same seagull on the same long hours earlier on the way out! I couldn’t be sure that it was the same gull, but I’m confident it was the same log. I found the coincidence astounding, considering how vast the Straights of Juan de Fuca are. But then Cory mentioned she was following her own sea-trail back to port.