On a recent twitter chat, we were queried to name a few “travel gems” that people may not know about. I revealed a gem that I had just returned from – the San Juan Islands in Washington State. This was my third trip to the San Juan Islands, a group of islands near Seattle, and my second to Friday Harbor in search of whales. It was a repeat, or do-over, of my first whale watching in the San Juan islands when there were no sightings. My earliest whale memory was, as a child, seeing Shamu at SeaWorld with all of his acrobatics and bringing the stuffed animal version back (such a cute, killer whale).
From Seattle, Friday Harbor is about a three hour trip one way aboard the Clipper boat. My whale watching tour would be a very long day – departure at 7:45 am and a return at 7:15 pm. Most of my time would be on the boat with the exception of two hours to wander around Friday Harbor (if you only have one day to be on the water, this is a good option. With more time, I would stay a few days). My first whale watching tour many years ago resulted in zero whale sightings so I was hopeful that this would be a more fruitful experience but either way, I do love being on the water so the trip would be good. I bought my ticket in advance online for $95 (prices vary).
The Clipper boat was comfortable for the long journey with three levels of seating – the top outside on benches, the middle and lower levels with individual seating not unlike a train seat and a few tables for groups. As we departed the Seattle harbor, i was initially sitting outside atop the vessel to take in the view of the city with the Space Needle on one side and the newer skyscrapers on the other side, but it quickly grew colder, despite the sun, so i wimped out to a seat on the second level relegated to looking out the windows past the passengers at the tables.
We would pass land on either side of the boat for a while and then entered a channel of fog and I saw nothing outside but white. The boat had to use the fog horn many times during this part of the trip. A bit unnerving at first but then i quickly returned to the many newspapers and music i had with me to pass the time. Just like the train trip the day before, this was an opportunity to relax and escape the outside world for the day which is a rare treat.
Arriving in Friday Harbor, we docked next to the Washington State Ferry terminal (the ferries service four islands in the San Juans).
Our boat would leave Friday Harbor and with a naturalist aboard, we were given quite a history of the sea life in the area (don’t ask me about it, goes in one ear, out the other for the most part). We sailed for about 20 minutes to an area near the island’s lighthouse as two pods of Orcas sightings had been reported. We were definitely the larger vessel in the area among Friday’s Harbors various whale watching operators, all of which were keeping a good distance from the pods (if staying a few days, you may opt for a smaller boat tour).
With the fight on the top outside deck to take a photo with their smartphones (not optimal equipment for this tour folks), I retreated to the second deck out back by the motors which had very few people (due to gasoline smell of engines, perhaps?). The pods were quite far away and for the most part, I could only see them through my camera telephoto lens but there were about five Orcas in one pod and maybe three in the other. I saw fins up, fins down, fins up, fins down and occasionally a spout of water. This is what the trip looked like for the most part of an hour.
I really wanted one to jump up and out like they do at SeaWorld or on commercials (tourist crazy moment). So then i wanted my National Geographic moment, the one that i focus my lens on hoping to press the button at the same time that “magic” happens. This would not be that day, this was just a normal Orcas swimming around day.
Still this was pretty cool sight knowing that the Orcas were right there (well over there, by the beach, under that weird tree at 11 o’clock, no 10 o’clock, you get the picture).
Heading back to Friday Harbor, my do-over was successful, i did see the Orcas in their natural state, living an ordinary day like all of us do. I would have time to eat lunch in town and walk around – of course the bakery had just closed but i found a quiet spot along the waterfront just to watch the ferry load passengers and cars onto the next island.
Our boat would set a course back to Seattle with so many amazing views along the way ending a wonderful day on the water.