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Sailing the Salish Sea in Search of Orcas

To say I was eager the morning of my whale-watching cruise out of Anacortes would be a massive understatement. I arrived an hour before we shoved off and no one was there. I spotted what I was pretty sure was our boat, about a 75-foot-long catamaran that I would later find could cruise at 25 knots without a concern. I called the tour office and told them who I was and my concern that I was in the wrong place. The nice woman described where I should be and, sure enough, I was in the right place. “You’re a little bit early but be patient. We’ll be boarding in about 40 minutes.” OK.

Relieved, I sat dockside and engaged in conversation a couple of older ladies who looked like they’d done this before. “I really want to see Orcas.” There, I laid my cards on the table. “What would you say my chances are, 50/50?” “Oh no!” One of the ladies exclaimed. “I’ve been on this tour about 25 times and I’d say 9 times out of 10 we see killer whales,” she admonished. 25 times? She explained that her son had taken a job in Anacortes years ago and she goes on this whale-watching cruise every time she comes to visit him. Well, she sounded like she knew what she was talking about. I leaned back in confidence and day-dreamed of all the Orcas I was going to see today.

About 75 of us boarded 20 minutes before shove off. I went to the front of ship and staked out a spot in the stadium seating at the bow. I wanted to be the first to see the Orcas. When I noticed there weren’t too many following my lead, I asked one of the crew members why not? He laughed and reminded me, “Sir, this boat will do 25 knots to get us out into the Salish Sea. It’s gonna be mighty cold up here on the bow!” What does he know about cold, I thought. I’m from Michigan. Well, he was right. It wasn’t long before tush and torso were freezing from the wind and my face burning from the sun, sunblock or no. I slipped on my waterproof Columbia wind breaker and pulled the hood over my head. Way over by head onto my sunglasses. That’ll have to do, I thought. I’m not giving up this spot.

The Salish Sea was glass smooth that day. Unlike my whale-watching cruise from Boston Harbor, which turned into the vomit cruise from hell, they neither recommended nor offered Dramamine to us on this one. I was surprised and concerned at this, but the Salish Sea really was smooth. At one point we got within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean, according to the captain, and you could start to feel the ocean swells. Uh oh, here we go, I thought. Vomit away, kids! But ole cap he didn’t dilly dally and made haste scooting us back to the stable, swell-free safety of the Salish Sea.

We saw an incredible amount of sea life that day and I’ll describe and share pictures below. Humpbacks, Minke whales, Stellar Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, even a rare Sea Otter, and so many species of sea birds I couldn’t keep track of them. The captain was awesome and had quite the eye for Humpbacks. Even our naturalist, Sam, was impressed at his ability to spot them. The crew did a fantastic job, too. They were really nice and always had a smile on their face. I couldn’t do that for 4 hours. But we didn’t see any Orcas. That’s right, no killer whales. We didn’t see any porpoises, either. Apparently, they were on the list, cousins to my killer whales, but I wasn’t so disappointed by their absence. Who knows, maybe the whole genus took the day off.
I was left with a strange feeling as we cruised back to Cap Sante Harbor in Anacortes. And I don’t mean because of my frozen torso and sunburnt face. I was grateful to have seen so much sea life, including the rare but I couldn’t get over my disappointment at not seeing any killer whales. I mean, that’s why you come to the San Juan Islands. Not for Humpbacks. Not for Sea Lions. You come for killers. What happened to 90%? I resisted the temptation to track down that nice old lady I’d met before the cruise and confront her. Just kidding. I wouldn’t have done that, but I did honestly wonder if her son wasn’t the captain.

Enjoy the pictures below. The captain did a remarkable job getting us as close as possible to the wildlife. I know they have laws about distances they have to keep. He also did a wonderful job getting as much of the boat a view of each creature we encountered as he could. Just no Orcas.

The first highlight of the day were these Stellar Sea Lions. They were big and loud! They have a fierce growl! Different from their California cousins, these sea lions were more relaxed and laid back, don't charge exhorbitant prices for a gallon of gas, and have a strictly enforced border.

I think these are Harbor Seals, but don't quote me. For sure, they're damn cute!

These little birds, Murres, were all over the place. Apparently, they live their entire lives on the water. I don't know where they lay their eggs. Maybe they float. Excellent swimmers, they've been documented diving over 500 feet deep!

This little guy, a Sea Otter, was the hit of the day. We rolled up on him as he was diving for clams. He resurfaced, rolled onto his back, and spent time trying to crack that clamshell to strike paydirt. While common in California, only three residents have been documented in this area.

Finally, we spotted a couple of Humpbacks. They're always great to see. In a way, their plight change human attitudes to stewardship of the sea and our pale blue dot in general.

Posted by TheSilverback 19:29 Archived in USA Tagged sea wildlife life sound lion whale puget otter

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