I had the most amazing opportunity to observe the other residents in the area: Orcas. They are beautiful animals and amazing to watch and listen to. Each pod has its’ own unique sound, and I learned so much about them and the islands surrounding San Juan from captains Spencer, Terry and Jim Maya. All three captains were very hospitable and knowledgeable of the area.
I was excited about my trip and was quite anxious to arrive. I couldn’t wait to get there, so I took an early flight on Alaska Airlines out of LAX and arrived in Seattle a little before 9 am on Monday, July 21st. I gathered my bags to catch the shuttle to Lake Union Station to continue my flight to Friday Harbor thru Kenmore Airlines. In order to continue my journey, I, for the first time, had to take a sea plane. When I am on a normal airplane, I don’t really like to fly over water, so when I boarded the sea plane, I didn’t really like flying over land because I wasn’t too convinced that the sea plane was the type that could land both on land and water. The sky was clear and blue and it was a gorgeous flight to Friday Harbor. From what I understand, sometimes you are able to spot whales in the water because the plane flies so low.
Friday Harbor has a very touristy downtown area. Once I arrived, I got my rental car, headed to town for lunch, and met up with a few of the people that I was there to see. We immediately went out on the boat to see the whales. :)
I thought we weren’t going out to see the whales until Tuesday morning, but I am so glad that we went early. The whales are in Andrews Bay on the west side of the island and it takes a bit of time to get there from Friday Harbor. Along the way, we were able to see a couple of Bald Eagles in the trees on the shore. When we arrived, there were quite a few JPod members spread out feeding. I was in awe; I couldn’t believe I was really there. I have always wanted the opportunity to see Orcas in the wild.
In my opinion, Orcas are challenging animals to photograph. It can be unpredictable and if the water is choppy, the boat can move; the boat can be moving to respect the whales and it can be difficult to photograph them. With this being my first time photographing them, I did okay. The Orcas weren’t very active; no spy hops or other major activity. I saw a breach from a young Orca, but unfortunately, was unable to capture it. :( There was a beautiful, adorable young Orca and they all stayed in the vicinity and then eventually headed north for shore feeding. The lighting that evening was beautiful and the waters were very calm in areas. The experience drove up my excitement and anxiety levels for the 10 am whale journey the following morning. :)
Once returning from my journey with the whales, I picked up a few groceries and headed to my small cabin at Mar Vista Resort, located on the west side of the island. I unpacked and then headed to the lighthouse to do some sight-seeing. The whole west side of the island is a common area for whales. I saw some river otters, a seal, and beautiful scenery, but no whales.
I was back at the cabin and in bed by 10 pm, which was weird for me because it was still very light out. It made the mornings appear quite early, which was good because it is nice to get out early, but not so good if you wanted a morning to sleep in as planned. :) The mornings and the late evenings can be quite chilly and breezy, which was a nice change for me after living in the heat and humidity.
Now, about my cabin: What can I say; I loved it, especially because there was not a TV or phone. Cell phone coverage can be done on the island, but can be inconsistent. The cabin had one bedroom, a bathroom with shower, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a porch with a rocking chair, and out in the back, there was a barbeque just above False Bay. Two cabins down from me was Whale Watch Point. Being on the west side of the island, your chances for seeing a whale are high. When the whales were in the area however, I was either out on the boat where I did get to view them, or in another part of the island. Two times in the five days I was there, I missed viewing the whales from my cabin by mere minutes.
Tuesday morning arrived and I made my way up to Snug Harbor; a cute harbor with a small resort, a mini store, and a few homes. There were quite a few boats, including Jim Mayas Charters. Jim is great and is highly recommended.
The day was great. I was out on the water from about 10 am until 7:30 pm. I had so much fun, saw lots of Orcas (JPod) and learned so much about the waters, the islands around the area, and crossed over into Canada and learned even more about whales. The morning group was captained by Spencer Dominco and the whales (only part of JPod) were in the area of False Bay, where my cabin is located, and Race rocks. If I had stayed in my cabin that morning, I would have seen them from my shore and many times they were very close to the shore. The Orcas were feeding and moving north, then south and stayed in the area for a while. They weren’t really on any kind of mission except for finding food. For the rest of the day, the trip was captained by Jim Maya who took us to the other half of JPod located around Saturna Island in the Canada waters. We spotted J27, Blackberry. There were lots of activity with breaches, porpoising while traveling, and some feeding. I even heard of a spyhop. In the same area that afternoon, Spencer, who was the captain from the morning, was out on another boat and he stated that J1, Ruffles caught a salmon and came right up to the boat. They could see the salmon in his mouth and Ruffles teeth. Spencer said it was amazing. We had to leave the whales to gas up in Roche Harbor, a neat harbor on the north end of San Juan Island. After we filled up with gas, we headed out to Boundary Strait behind Stuart Island where we saw J1Ruffles; the largest and oldest male in JPod. He is also very famous because he was one of the wild whales in the movie Free Willy. He isn’t too active in regards to breaching and mostly just travels through the waters due to his size and age. However, his mother, Granny J2, breaches often and is almost 100 years old, but she is quite smaller. Later in the evening hours, we headed out to Haro Strait to view more whales of JPod.
It seemed like we were all over the place during our trip and I was burned out and tired by the time we arrived back at the harbor. On my way back to the cabin, I stopped off at Lime Kiln State Park to see if there were any whales, but was unsuccessful.
However, just a mile or so farther down, sat a beautiful Bald Eagle in a tree with the ocean as a back drop. It was gorgeous and I pulled off the road to take a few photos of it. The warm lighting from the evening was beautiful on the Eagle.
Wednesday morning arrived and I drove over to the Cattle Point Lighthouse area, Roche Harbor, and did some other island driving to check things out. I saw a lot of wildlife including deer, a Camel, a Bald Eagle, and a Turkey Vulcher. After I went to Roche Harbor, I went back to the cabin for lunch and to rest. I decided against resting and headed up to Lime Kiln to see if there was any whale activity. When I drove into the parking lot, another photographer with a huge lens was packing his gear up and I asked him about the status of the whales. He told me that they had just passed and if I went up to San Juan County Park a few miles up the road, I would be able to see them pass there. I hurried up, staying very close to the speed limit. When I arrived, there was nothing around and it was very cold and windy. All I could think about was how the weather was going to put a damper on my kayaking trip with my sister the following day. There were kayakers heading out just as the whales appeared in the area. I watched them for as long as I could and saw a few spy hops in the distance, lots of foraging, and group traveling, possible feeding. They weren’t moving into the area very fast, so only the first few came into the area while I was there. I left after about 15 minutes and the whales hadn’t made it in close to the shore by the time I left, although I heard they did make it in a little while later.
I had to be back at the harbor by 1pm and I barely made it in time to catch the boat that was being captained by Jim Maya the first portion of the trip and Terry Dominco for the remainder of the trip. The whales started on the northwest side of San Juan Island in Haro Strait and moved up into Canada in the Swanson Channel near Pender Island by evening. We encountered J26, L57, and L90 along with other whales that we couldn’t confirm I.D.’s on. There was lots of feeding activity and a couple of breaches, one from an unidentified whale who breached really close to the boat. It surprised all of us as we had no idea where it was going to come up and we had thought it had headed away from us. While out viewing the whales, we spotted some Mouflon Sheep and Harbor Seals on Stern Island and a Bald Eagle on both Spieden and Stuart Island. By the time we left the whales, they were heading far up into Canada, so there wasn’t a chance to see them from the cabin or lighthouse area that evening. This gave me the chance to make a quick trip down to South Beach to see if I could find any of the foxes that I heard is a common area for them to hang out in the evening. I found one and spent a few moments photographing it. The fox never went into the field, but hung out on the side of the road or in the road, so it didn’t make for a very good “wildlife photo”. I didn’t stay long, as I needed to get back to the cabin to rest because I had to get up early and pack.
We used Outdoor Odyssey for our outing, and they were terrific. We departed out of the cove at San Juan County Park and headed south past Lime Kiln State Park Lighthouse. Unfortunately, the whales were still quite far north of San Juan Island, so I had no encounters with them. On the way back to the park, we possibly sighted a whale, but was more likely a dolphin in the far distance towards Victoria, BC. We stopped for lunch at Deadman’s Cove and it was great. We had veggies, bagels, pita pockets, and things along those lines. After lunch, we kayaked further south before we headed back. Our kayak guide figured that we had kayaked close to 7 miles round trip and our rear ends were so sore that we couldn’t wait to get out, but had tons of fun. Next time, we will take stadium seat cushions to sit on. :) It does get quite uncomfortable kayaking from 11 am to 3:45 pm with only a 30 minute break.
My sister and I had to be back in town by 5 pm to go out on a whale watch boat. I wanted her to see whales one way or another. So for her birthday present, we went out on San Juan Safari’s evening trip. It’s a great time to be out on the water with the low lighting. We encountered only a few whales, but it included J1 Ruffles. They were on the west side of the island near Lime Kiln State Park, moving both north and south. The whales were very spread out and we did see an adorable orca calf. J2 breached in the distance and we encountered a Minke whale that appeared
right off the bow of the boat when it came up for air. We saw its’ back and small dorsal fin.
After we got back, we were cold and wanted something hot to eat. We went to Downriggers Restaurant for soup which is a place I definitely recommend.
Thursday and Friday was a last minute decision for me to stay on the island so I couldn’t stay at the cabin. We still had to check into our hotel and stayed at Discovery Inn which is a very nice place that I recommend. It is located on the outskirts of town and I would stay there again if I go back and need to stay close to town.
Friday morning came and we drove up to Roche Harbor for breakfast and to have a look around. It is a neat, quaint harbor and is the second largest on the island, first being Friday Harbor. It has a historic feel to it and is much smaller in regards to restaurants and stores compared to Friday Harbor.
A while later, we made our way down the west side and it was so cold and windy at the lighthouse so we didn’t walk all the way down to it. This made our kayaking day seem even more perfect. We went back into Friday Harbor to do some shopping and walk around for a bit before our flight left Friday Harbor at 3 pm. It was a great flight back to Boeings Fields on a land plane. It was beautiful and somewhat clear on the south side, although on the north side of the plane, it was a bit hazy and overcast in areas. We saw so many islands and from what I have been told, there are up to 700 islands when the water is really low, but most of the time only 300-400 are visible.
My sister and I said our good-bye’s at Boeings Field as her vehicle was there and my shuttle was leaving for SeaTac. I made it home close to midnight. It was great to be home, but I wasn’t really ready to leave there and am looking forward to my next trip back. I created so many wonderful memories, met great people, and I actually enjoyed editing and going through my photos, which is a first, except for having to toss out the bad images, and there were quite a few! I do plan to go back next summer for the same experience of a lifetime.