Whale Watching with Puget Sound Express

By Cara Patten

Video By Emily Deering

Photos by Emily Deering and Bret Wirta

May 22nd 2012.

Bret, Capt Korie, Cara, Becca and Emily

Bret, Capt Korie, Cara, Becca and Emily

I arrived in Port Townsend for a day of whale watching with two friends and my friend’s dad. We had booked our trip with an experienced company, Puget Sound Express. After browsing through the whale-themed paraphernalia in their gift shop, we were led by Carly, a smiling mate, down the dock and into the boat. I entered the window-lined the boat, surprised and relieved for the warm cabin and comfortable seating. Adding to my delight was the supply of coffee, tea and renowned Blueberry Buckle coffeecake. The four of us headed towards the bow where we could all fit together, not realizing that this would be the most bumpy part of the boat.

Captain Korie, from the wheel in her pilot house on the top deck, drove out of the harbor and soon we were traveling at 20 knots, (which I learned is the equivalent of 23 miles per hour). Soon, literally we were bouncing along the water. As we slid from one side Captain Korie explained that the cause of our wild movement was the combined effect of the current, the cold temperature and deepness (about 300 feet on average) of the water. Throughout the journey Captain Korie provided us a stream of information about our the surrounding nature.

Whale Watching with Puget Sound Express

As we sailed further out and the waves began to calm, I was able to take in our surroundings. Standing tall on one side of the boat were steep, nearly vertical bluffs which had been created by glaciers thousands of years ago, covered with green trees and brown dirt paths. Across from the bluffs, the water seemed to stretch forever, its never ending immensity matching the majesty of the whales we were about to observe.

Scanning the horizion

Scanning the horizion

What luck! Our boat was the first of 2012 to sight orcas. The whales were late this year and had just come back. The orcas that we found were from the j pod, which were the most studied orca population in the world in the mid-80s, so all of them have now been named. Captain Korie listed off her favorite names including Double Stuff (after the Oreo) and Jelly Roll.

Once the boat stopped, I left the comfort of the underside of the boat and moved up top to search out the whales we had been promised. One would pop up and swim along the surface, only visible by the black dorsal fin sticking up through the waves. As we observed the orcas, Captain Korie spouted off facts about them through a microphone from her perch at the steering wheel.

We spotted orcas!

We spotted orcas!

There are two types of orcas; resident and transient, who could be classified as good and evil. We observed the resident orcas, who eat mainly fish, communicate often using echolocation and tend to return to the same spot each year. The transient orcas on the other hand, are genetically different from resident orcas, hunt marine animals such as seals and rarely mingle or bond with each other.

At noon we pulled into Friday Harbor a charming town made up of just a few blocks. When we arrived Captain Korie assured us, “you can’t get lost, if you’re turned around, just go downhill,” which provided a very fitting description of the town. Before disembarking the boat, a binder of menus were passed around for us to decide which restaurant to go to. We decided to eat at Downriggers, a large restaurant overlooking the ferry-filled dock. Craving seafood after hours on the water, I ordered the blackened salmon sandwich with basil mayonnaise and thinly cut french fries and was pleasantly satisfied.

Tasty lunch in Friday Harbor

Tasty lunch in Friday Harbor

I was attracted to an ice cream shop boasting to supply 72 ice cream flavors, so we stopped for triple chocolate and java chip ice cream, eating as we continued walking through town. We explored the rest of Friday Harbor, coming across two very small parks, numerous boutiques, bookstores and the single theater playing two movies. It was the typical cute, small town complete with a banner advertising the 17th annual barbershop bonanza.

We boarded the boat after two hours and Captain Korie steered us back to Port Townsend, stopping along the way to point out the various islands we passed. The trip back was a blur of evergreens and lighthouses set against full white clouds. On the shores of Spencer State Park we saw orange sea stars grasping the rocks and found a bald eagle’s nest high in a tree, its white head poking out as the only indication of its existence. Captain Korie informed us that the San Juan Islands boast the largest number of bald eagles in the U.S. and that they live for 30 years, won’t eat other bird’s eggs and share parental duties.

Can you spot the eagle's nest

Can you spot the eagle's nest

Another attraction which Captain Korie pointed out to us was Spieden Island, a privately-owned island which had apparently at one point housed exotic, imported wild animals such as Asian deer and Corsican sheep meant for people to hunt. However, this hunting range turned out to be less popular than expected and the animals began to overrun the island until people came in to get rid of them and the animals swam away, taking up residence on other islands throughout the area.

As we neared our final destination, the water resumed the choppy waves which had thrown us around earlier, hitting the sides so hard that it began to leak through the window on the ceiling. I returned full of whale facts and delicious food as I exited the boat for the final time. Captain Korie and mate Carly stood at the door showing the passengers out, and were showered with compliments from every passenger, including our group. Thanks Puget Sound Express for a wonderful experience.


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