ORCA SPOTTING AROUND THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS
It’s hard to sleep when there are a million stars in the sky, and every splash just might be a whale breaching. Welcome to life in the San Juans.
The San Juan’s are three little Edens off the coast of Seattle, within spitting distance of Canada’s Vancouver Island. The islands are charming in a folksy way, with rolling fields and cute coffee shops, but their real draw lies in the water: killer whales. The San Juan Islands are one of the best places in the world to see orcas in the wild, often close to shore, and it was the opportunity to kayak next to these massive animals that first put the Pacific Northwest on our radar.
To get to the San Juans, we caught the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes. Word of advice – when they say get there on time, they mean it. We were one minute late for our booked ferry and were told that our reservations had been cancelled – we’d have to hope that there would be a later ferry that would have enough room to take us. We had visions of a night making s’mores on the tarmac but luckily after a mere three hours wait we managed to make it onto a departing boat (sorry to the guy who we ruthlessly overtook in the queue, but it’s everybody for themselves at times like these). The ferry journey to the islands is an experience in itself, and our lateness ended up being a good thing as we got to witness the start of a truly beautiful sunset.
We stayed at the County Park Campground which has a peak location on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. Book early if you want to secure a spot, especially at busy times. We were lucky enough to secure a pitch right by the cliff face and caught the blazing end of that day’s setting sun.
The dawn chorus kicks in early, with the usual seagulls, joined by barking seals and the honking of distant ships. We had just one full day on the island, so without any time to spare we headed down to Friday Harbour, the island’s town, where we would begin our day of sea kayaking with orcas. Now, we like to stay positive on Nomadic Fox, so I’m not going to give the name of the company that we went kayaking with. Suffice to say, I never knew that sea kayaking could be dull, but I can assure you that it is possible. Our first hint of the day to come was when we bundled into a van and headed right back across the island to the campsite we had just come from. Yes, our seaside campsite with its free kayaks was also the launching point for our pricey tour.
We found all this quite funny, especially after the drama getting to the island the day before. It didn’t matter where we were starting, as long as we got out on the water and next to those killer whales. Then a few throwaway comments made our hearts sink – our guide seemed pretty casual about the chance of even seeing whales. Now, before you judge us – we’ve all done a lot of wildlife adventures, and we know that sightings aren’t guaranteed… but you at least want to feel like your guide is trying, especially when the company website sold the chance of seeing orcas as being pretty high.
As we meandered around the coastline with no particular sense of direction, we started to get…bored. This wasn’t helped by the fact that our guide kept manoeuvring us to areas where we could catch ‘free rides’ and avoid paddling at all. This would be fine in a group of mixed ability, but we were an athletic group, who had taken to heart the ‘training advice’ suggested in the company’s emails to us and were more than capable of trying something a little harder. A six-hour day trip ended up including just a couple of hours of half-hearted kayaking, watching other boats zooming past us on the way to presumed whale sightings whilst we drifted in the other direction. Halfway through our guide gave up on the pretence of seeking whales entirely and instead started playing water polo with some other guides. The rest of the tour groups were just as bemused and bored as us.
We arrived back on shore and made the journey back to Friday Harbour to pick up our car. When we arrived back in town our irritation rose when we heard people discussing the day’s sightings. We realised that our guide was so relaxed about seeing whales because he knew they were on the other side of the island well away from our short kayaking route! Whilst this is perfectly fine, surely it’s best, to be honest at the outset of a tour that sightings aren’t going to happen?! We found out later that very few kayaking tours actually see whales.
So the whales were out there, and we were on land. There was only one thing for it: persuade a fully booked sunset boat tour to allow us to gatecrash. After two or three false starts we found an awesome tour which not only let us tag along but let us do so for a reduced price.
Our evening safari with San Juan Safaris proved to be everything our kayaking wasn’t. Our guides were ultra knowledgeable and communicated with other whale spotters in the area to ensure a sighting. As we saw our second sunset on San Juan Island a lone male killer whale appeared silhouetted against the horizon. The three boats in the area cut their engines, and we watched in silence for over half an hour as he surfaced and dived, surfaced and dived, the only movement in the great stillness of the ocean. Despite the false starts, it was absolutely worth it.
Helen Cross | @Helen_Estelle