John Boyd Photograph

Whale Watching on San Juan Island with Western Prince

Cover Photo by John Boyd

My Bavarian cousin Tanja was visiting me in America for the first time. Going on a whale watch tour, as well as having her first oyster was on her bucket list. To achieve these noble goals, she came to visit San Juan Island. When the ferry lands in Friday Harbor the first building you’ll see is the bright red office of the Western Prince right on the water. It was not the convenient location which drew Tanja and I to the Western Prince, even though simply walking three blocks from our hotel to our whale watch tour on a sunny September afternoon was definitely a plus. It was their passion, care and concern they take when they run their whale watching operation. From the moment we entered the office to book our tour until we left the boat, we felt taken care of, appreciated and infected with the unaltered enthusiasm for all things Orca of everybody we encountered from their crew. They give part of their proceeds to salmon restoration. They always have naturalists on their intimate, personal trips; outrageously funny ones, I might add. And they have options.  And to be fair, there are many great Whale Watch operators on the island, and if the Western Prince happens to be full, we love San Juan Safaris.

The Western Prince has two boats: the Western Prince II and the Western Explorer. The latter is an orange zodiac, with open air seating for 15. Once suited up, you go on a 2-3 hour fast, exhilarating ride, a bit like a roller coaster, without a bathroom (there is a bucket for emergencies) and not for the ones with chronic back pain. The Western Prince II can take up to 32 people out on the water, has a heated cabin, bathroom and covered outdoor seating area. There are snacks for sale, books to read and binoculars to borrow. My cousin and I, both easily chilled office workers with girlish bladders and above mentioned back pain, decided on the Western Prince II for our trip.

Our tour was booked to capacity with people from all over the world, without feeling crowded. Kids and couples, groups of friends, first-timers like us and folks who had been on the last four trips and sported camera lenses the size of children’s legs. Our naturalists were JB and Sarah. The two of them clearly had fun doing their job. Their demonstration of the safety procedures made us laugh out loud and clap.

We went south, rounded Cape San Juan and paralleled South Beach, San Juan Island’s longest beach, when we encountered the first group of transient orcas. Half of our group went to the front of the boat with Sarah, equipped with cameras and binoculars. While half stayed in the back with JB, who made one joke after the other, answered all of our questions and told us about the difference between the so-called Southern Resident Killer Whales and the Transients. Our captain turned the hydrophones on and we listened to the Orcas talk, sing and whistle. Transients hunt in small groups and avoid contact with the residents. We learned that Orcas belong to the dolphin family and are its largest members, much to my surprise, and about the different diets of the individual pods. The resident J-pod for example almost exclusively eats salmon. When there are no salmon, the Orcas starve.

It was breathtaking to see these majestic creatures in the wild. After each sighting we counted to gauge when they might breach again. There was not a single person without a big smile on their face on our boat. JB taught us about the strong family bonds and highly developed languages of the black fish and that swimming with the Orcas is not allowed in the United States, otherwise he would do it in a second.

The sea was calm. The visibility endless. There were almost no other boats on the water. We could see Mt Baker glistening to the east, the snow-covered Olympic Mountains to the west, and even got a glimpse of Mt Rainier, 80 miles south from us.

We got our proverbial money’s worth when we encountered K25, Scoter, a resident male, who fished right by us. We stayed with him for almost an hour, we couldn’t get enough. It not only seemed that Scoter was giving us a thrill, I detected pure joy in his movement, rolls and jumps.

Bald Eagle flying by

We encountered porpoises, white sided dolphins, Bald Eagles, cormorants, loons and seals. The time to get back to Friday Harbor came way too soon.

Steller Sea Lions

We stopped one more time, by a large rock, right where the Haro Straits meet the Strait of  Juan de Fuca. We smelled them before we heard them. Steller Sea Lions. A ton of them, fighting loudly for the best spot in the sun. JB explained that adult male Stellers are the size of grizzly bears. I was glad to be on the boat.