On my goals for 2017, among many other wonderful dreams, is to see Orca in the wild. Yes, we have a reasonably local pod off the West Coast of Scotland but they are quite a rare sight.
After lots of research and looking at logistics we ruled out getting to Vancouver Island after finishing the Oregon Coastal Highway. Too far away and expensive to get to, as we plan to visit Yellowstone for Wolves, bear and moose and be back in Oregon for the Solar Eclipse.
The San Juan islands are in Washington state and reasonably easy to get too! We take a bus from Florence to Eugene and then another bus to Seattle. We catch a shuttle bus from Seatac airport to Anacortes and a ferry over to Friday Harbour on the main island, San Juan. It’s a two day trip to get to San Juan and it has the feeling of Gairloch. It’s bustling with tourists and all the locals know each other. The islands main industry is tourism, just like back home. However here their are scores of kayak and whale watching boats. Welcome to the island that boasts the Orca Highway.
The resident pod of Orca eat salmon, thus behave differently from the transient pods of Orca which frequent the waters off the coast of the San Juan Islands and Canada.
We catch the local bus ($5 p/p about 4 buses a day) to San Juan County Park which has a hiker biker camp. There are toilets with running water, charge points in the toilet or at the rangers office. For once the Hiker Biker camp, is the best spot in the campsite.
The temperatures are topping triple digits on the mainland and San Juan, although not quite so hot, is dry and balmy. We erect our tent as close as possible to the sea and plan our Orca sighting optimisation plan. The sunsets from the park are magnificent and the lights of Vancouver Island wink at us as it turns from dusk to dark.
There are warnings everywhere about the resident raccoons and thankfully there is a communal food locker for the hiker bikers. Despite this during the night I am awoken. There is something outside the tent. If I didn’t know better I would sweat it was a hippopotamus ripping up hunks of grass with its massive mouth. The noise of the rip and munch is so loud! What can it be? I sit up and look out the mesh of the tent door and I see the delicate silhouette of a graceful black tailed deer. She is gazing at me. I Am gazing at her! She is beautiful! After a while she tires of inquisitively looking at me the big red caterpillar. and resumes her hippo impersonation moving further down the meadow towards the sea.
The Orcas are well know to be visible from the coastline from our park and also Lime Kiln park, down the coast a few kilometres. This is the Orca Highway. The salmon run up the west side of the island and the hunters follow their prey.
Based on all our research we book a kayak trip and dream of our Orca Experience. The kayak trips leave from Small Pox bay, in our park, so we wait for our guide and the other clients to arrive. We chat to our neighbours in the campsite. They have a yacht and travel these waters often and are touring the island with their bikes for a few days. We are the only hikers at the park, the rest of the people are either cyclists or have vehicles. We we chat their little dog heads for the porch of our tent. Cory hollers a ‘hey’ at the dog and the mum quickly retrieves the dog.
Later we I go to renter the tent and get ready for our kayak I find a little horrid parcel the dog had left for us on our porch!!!! Dogs always on the leash, the rules are there for a reason. Yuck!!! Thankfully it was a wee dog! The ‘parents’ are horrified, I’m reasonably matter of fact about it, Cory ‘is Not happy about it’.
After initially accidentally signing into the wrong group! Our guide and van arrive and we set off!
We see Bald Eagles, curious seals, harbour porpoise, millions of tiny fish, various jellyfish but we have one track minds. ORCA. The sea is tranquil and still, like a pond, not the open sea. I feel quite calm in the double kayak with my expert at the back. Cory takes a wee while to get used to having a rudder though! I just paddle as instructed and hope for the best.
We stop for lunch and based on cryptic comments from our guide and the other clients I ask. “Did we miss some Orca information on the mini bus? Are the Orca not around?”
Our guide admits yes we had missed a bit of information on the trip over. The ‘resident orca’ have ceased to be resident. The salmon have disappeared and thus the Orca have too, worse, this isn’t a recent occurrence. The sightings had plummeted in 2016 and 2017 it had gotten a lot worse. Salmon numbers were down to 20% of what they were a few years ago. The Orca now rarely frequent the ‘Orca super highway’.
This is the best kept secret of the San Juan islands where the tourism industry is built of the whales (as well as sport fishing). People don’t come here to kayak, they come to kayak with Orca.
The day ceases to hold any interest for me after that. I can go kayaking, we can go kayaking whenever we want. We live beside the sea, we kayak with Otter and curious seals.
Quite discontent and feeling quite ill treated at this information we rethink our strategy. We book a super fast rib from Friday Harbour the next day, as there are many transient pods of Orca in the Saltish Sea. With a fast boat we maximise our chance of being able to get to any pods, if sighted.
We had to get up and on the road by 7am. The local bus doesn’t start until 10:30 so we will have to walk the 10 miles across the island. If we don’t get a hitch this leaves enough time to get into town by foot. 2 miles into our hike, a young Dutch couple stop and empty their back seat. They have just left our campsite and are headed for the ferry at Friday Harbour. Kerching ! Cory impresses them with a ‘Dank vel!’
The smog from the wildfires in Canada have made the day hazy and humid. We get kitted up in the warm suits and head from
Canadian waters where the captain says Orca have been spotted. It will take us about 1hour 10 minutes to get to the area. After yesterday’s disappointment, we are a bit scared to get our hopes up!!
There is a naturalist on board also but we travel so fast there isn’t much she can say and be heard. The captain, with 20 years experience, seems to know just as much as our guide.
We bump across the flat seas and visibility across the waters is fantastic. If the orca are there, we will see them!
The groups of boats are the give away that we have reached our destination. The tour boats have to stay at least 400yards away from
The Orca to decrease disturbing the whales. Of course if he Orca dive and come up closer to the boat, then you have ‘lucked out’.
Then silently the huge dorsal fins break the surface of the calm grey waters. It is breathtaking!
When they dive we never know where exactly they will reappear. We watch them silently break the waters surface, usually take about three quiet breaths and dive again.
The transients are hunting. They will eat porpoise or seals etc. Thus they behave differently from the resident salmon eating pods. They are silent. They breath as one. They are quiet. They are stealthy.
They are spellbinding.
They are magnificent.
They are beautiful.
We are thrilled. When, after 40 minutes, the captain says we will have to start heading back. We are gutted. I want to stay with them for hours.
Our captain was good however as he, unlike many other boats, kept a respectful distance from the whales. It was interesting to watch the other boats and how they flouted the rules. Also how the boats were ‘almost’ listing to one size with the weight of all their tourists leaning over one side of the boat.
Thrilled we return to Friday Harbour and catch the 4 times a day bus back to the park.
Day three and the Orca pressure is off! We have a day off sitting at our campsite and gazing at the sea.
Day four, again we start hitching into town before the bus service. A lady picks up about a mile into our hike, again she is from our campsite and has a lovely big dog called Bear. She drops us off at a busier junction as she is headed for English Camp. Immediately after getting dropped off Elaine picks us up, she’s in a rush so we scoot into the car and whoosh have a lovely chat as she heads into town in a hurry.
Our initial ferry departing Friday Harbour was late, we get back into town late. We’ve missed the bus that will take us back home. We manage to get to the supermarket before the 60+ cyclists manage to locate it and empty it of booze and crisps and then head to the ‘bus stop’. There is a bus but it won’t go as far as our park. It stops 5 miles before our park and then turns and heads back to town.
We ask to get dropped off as close to the park as possible and the driver recognises us. She’s says if no one else gets on the bus she will take us all the way home. No one else does get on, we are very lucky ( and great full) and leave here a tip as well as our fare!
We leave he island on Saturday and have to be at Friday Harbour by 6am. Cory arranges for a taxi to pick us up at 5:20 and it’s a groggy 4:45 that sees us packing up the tent in the dark.
We wait for the taxi at the park entrance as we sleepily remove ‘sleep’ from our eyes. 5:15, 5:20, 5:25, 5:30. Cory phoned the company, no answer. He phoned them again and leaves a message. 5:35. He tried again. He then phoned our (return journey prepaid) shuttle driver to explain that our taxi hasn’t picked us up! He says that even if he shows up now, we won’t make it as he is about to board. He said we could try for the 8am ferry and try and catch the Bellair shuttle. 5:40 and we start walking.
Trudge. Trudge trudge. Our bus leaves Seattle at 2pm! IF we catch he 8am ferry. IF we can get space on Bellair Shuttle. Will we reach Seattle in time for our next prepaid bus to Portland?
3 miles, we walk three miles and no a single vehicles passes us! At the English Camp junction we hear a truck.
I don’t hitch! Apparently I “pulled a face” which Cory said I should use every time we are hitching. Hehe!
I didn’t use my thumb either! I flagged the truck down! The driver didn’t have a chance!
He was opening his boot before I even explained our predicament. What an angel!
He was a local cafe owner on his way to open up!
He said that the Island operated on its own agenda and wasn’t entirely surprised we had been let down by our taxi driver! We had assumed their was only one company on the island but he explained there was a few!
We arrived in good time and headed for a coffee and to charge our iPhones. We needed to arrange our onward journey and get the taxi driver! Cory phoned and phoned the taxi company and left messages. No one phoned us back!!!
I phoned the taxi company, with my different number, and someone answered. I passed the phone to Cory.
After chatting to the driver on duty it was established that our driver should have been BoB the owner of the company. The driver said he would phone Bob and get a solution and call us back. He did call back and said Bob had forgotten to write our booking in his book! And?
He said Cory should call Bob in the office. Again Cory called and called. He left messages. No response. Cory phoned the driver back and explained Bob ‘wasn’t answering his phone’! The driver then gave Cory Bobs mobile ( well it wasn’t his mistake was it!).
Bob answered his mobile!
Cory, thankfully, managed to remain calm and explained we had now missed our prepaid shuttle to Seattle and would also miss our prepaid bus to Portland.
Bob said he would be with us in 10 minutes to give us money to cover our costs! We then set about trying to get reservations on the Bellair shuttle and change our BoltBus booking. Bob appeared with seconds to spare as we prepared to board the ferry. We got $160 to cover our costs.
We secured seats on Bellair. We managed to get our BoltBus tickets changed we would make it to Portland that night for our prepaid Airbnb. And we even had money left over for a lovely late lunch in Seattle. The most awesome Chinese.
It had been quite stressful! We were just glad we hadn’t been heading to the airport for a flight only bus connections or the consequences would have been a lot more