Friday Harbor, located on San Juan Island, is picture perfect, especially on a sunny late summer day. With its shipshape buildings and stellar view, it’s almost too cute to be true–even its ferry terminal is bedecked with little leaping orcas. Of course, it would have to be this way: nearly the entire economy of the islands is tourist-driven, and the only ways to visit are to take a ferry*, own a boat, or hire a puddle-jumper. If they were to lose tourist appeal, the whole town could tank. This also explains why the town’s motto could be “An ice cream in every hand.” Because, seriously, there were about three types of land-based businesses: seafood restaurants, coffee shops, and ice cream shops. Even the bookstore serves coffee, with ice cream service presumably coming soon. My salted caramel ice cream in a waffle cone was delightful…after all, who was I to deny their ice cream based economy?
Besides eat ice cream, there are a few things to do in Friday Harbor: zip line, sunset sails in restored ships, hiking, and a whale museum. I’ll have to go back to check out all of that stuff, because my afternoon was already booked with a three-hour tour: whale watching with Western Prince Whale and Wildlife Tours. I’d read recently that one of the resident orca pods in Puget Sound had a baby, and I was very hopeful to see the tender little 8 foot babe, whom I was certain would leap into my arms and let me give him kisses.
Safety first! I can’t have any of you standing on the front of the boat, shouting “I’m king of the world!”: that attracts icebergs.
Western Prince Whale and Wildlife Tours doesn’t have a “whale guarantee” like some of their competitors, but they aren’t slouches: if there are whales in the area, they’ll take you to them. Plus, the naturalists on board are both personable and knowledgeable– in one breath, they’ll tell you about the wildlife and in the next they’ll crack a joke or teach a goofy whale call. There are a number of whale watching businesses based in Friday Harbor, and while I picked Western Prince at random, I never felt like I made the wrong choice. Our tour got off to a late start as they extended the previous tour to chase reports of a humpback whale and the transient orcas that had been eluding them all morning. The good news was that they found both, and the orcas were moving closer into their range, not further out, so our chances of seeing them were high. The first wildlife we saw was a stellar sea lion cruising through the water. He raised one enormous foreflipper to us and disappeared below the surface, diving deep as we continued on our way. We also saw a few harbor porpoises in the distance, but they are so shy and human-averse that by the time you point them out, they’ve skedaddled. Our first encounter with marine life that wasn’t on the move was a sea lion hangout.
Further into the tour, we slowed down near some “bait balls”–groups of schooling fish that cluster to protect themselves from predators. This strategy doesn’t really work well for them, as it enables larger predators like the sleek minke whale to gulp entire mouthfuls at once.
Eventually we made it to where the transient group of orcas, the group known as the T60s, were hanging out. They recognize them as this group as every orca has a unique dorsal fin and saddle patch, which makes them easier to track as individuals. When we reached them, it was reported that they had just made a kill, so there was the possibility of post-kill celebration: breaching, tail-slapping, and other behaviors. There was the possibility, but we didn’t actually see any: the orcas were on the move, and after a few surfaces, they’d disappear and move farther along the horizon. At one point, a private boat came much too fast and much too close and scared them away, actually chasing them while they moved to evade the noise. As there wasn’t any enforcement out on the water at the time, there was really nothing that could be done about the whale harassment, though I believe some of the passengers on our boat availed themselves of the international hand signal for “go fuck yourself”. International signals were required because at that point, we may have been in Canadian waters.
I loved watching them swim. When the boat was turned off, you could hear the whooshing explosions of their breaths as they surfaced. It was incredible to be in the presence of these wild animals and see even this small fraction of their world.
Suddenly, the whales started circling in the water. “I think they’re hunting something!” one of the naturalists exclaimed. “Maybe we’ll get some exciting gore!” The whales split, and right near our boat, a little harbor seal face popped out of the water. I lay no claims on psychic ability, but his thoughts were clear: “Holy shit, get me out of here, if those black and white guys ask you, you didn’t see NOTHING. No seals here! NOPE.” On the way back to Friday Harbor, we had a white-sided dolphin jump and play in our wake for a little while. Lots of our encounters were too fleeting to photograph, you just had to appreciate them while they were happening. Still, I’ve told Jason that I’d love to go back someday, armed with a camera lens the size of a toddler so I can see straight up an orca’s nose and into its brain. Don’t tell me that’s not how things work, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it. We arrived in Friday Harbor in time to take the 6:30 ferry to Anacortes, and as luck would have it, at this time of year, the ferry coincides with the sunset, which is gorgeous out on the water. I loved watching the water take on different characteristics: sometimes glassy, sometimes choppy, sometimes rippled, and sometimes it would look almost pixelated!
*If you decide to visit via ferry, it’s much easier (and cheaper!) to park your car in a lot on the Anacortes side and walk on to the ferry than it is to drive on and off and find parking in Friday Harbor. You’re also able to cut it a little closer with ferry times if you’re a walk-on–you don’t have to be there as early just to wait around to load up.