Nov 24

Whale watching

Every time I come to the San Juans I look for whales. Sometimes its as easy as waiting on the shoreline n a good place (Lime Kiln park on San Juan Island is a good place) but usually it’s better to go on a boat. As of late, I’ve grown a little weary of the scene, as it’s so crowded. In the summer, when most tourists are there, you can be part of a fleet of boats pursuing the whales, and it feels spoiled. But in the fall or winter months, almost nobody does this, and the experience is quite different. Much more peaceful, probably less stressful on the animals and a lot more fun. Usually I see orcas, minke whales, and Dall’s porpoises. This time we didn’t see any orcas. Oh well.

We used Jim Maya’s service, because he came highly recommended as a personable, knowledgeable, and customized whale-watching provider. All of this proved true.

The sun cast a gray light over oily calm waters, the air temperature just right for crisping apples. For half an hour we cast about, finding only the enjoyment of being on a boat with the Olympic peninsula looming indistinctly in the distance like a reminder of unreachable greatness. Every so often we’d cut the engines and stand on deck scanning the water for anything unusual, any telltale signs of activity below the surface. Twenty minutes of nothingness, and my mind began to wander. Threads of ideas – memories of embarrassments years old, people whose names have been forgotten, minor debts owed – and I idly considered things like “I wonder how deep the water is here, and man, it will be stressful to return to work.”

A shotgun blast churned the water beneath the bow into a foaming crown.

J.C. on a popsicle stick! What the hell was that? Okay, maybe it was not a shotgun blast, more like a bowling ball dropped into the water from a height of 3 meters. I pointed to the disturbed water 1 foot away from the bow. “It’s right here!” I called out, realizing the pointlessness of trying to explain what “it” was, since I had no idea. Jim started the engines and eased the boat around in a slow but tight turn. He didn’t look alarmed.

I’ve seen plenty of whales, but they usually show up with plenty of warning, and from a distance. What was this thing? It happened again, but this time I had my camera ready:

Finally, the cause revealed itself more fully, but only while we were under way and at a good clip:

Dall’s porpoises! They are common in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but this was unusual because there were so many, so close, and for so long! The water boiled with these animals, which look like little orcas. They move very rapidly and erratically. They seemed to be about five feet long, and in a group of perhaps 10-15.

All day long, while we looked for larger animals, these porpoises played in our bow wave. As soon as we slowed down or stopped, they abandoned us.

And let’s not forget the true whale we found, or should I say whales. We think there were two or three individual minke whales, but we’re not sure. They can be distinguished by the placement of their dorsal fin, which is oddly close to the tail. They gracefully arch out of the water, only their backs showing:

Finally, here is a picture of me, sitting on the bow of the boat holding my big glass, sneering at the camera (it was cold, and my glasses were sliding off of my face):

Holly also captured some great images and video from this whale-watching day.


2 Comments so far

  1. kyle cassidy November 24th, 2008 1:57 PM

    that’s quite a lens you have there!

    i’ve seen some great photos of whales taken from bridges on the san juans. it’s a lovely place!

  2. spleeness November 24th, 2008 3:40 PM

    I’d seen these other photos when you were showing me before but I am again amazed at how much they take my breath away. Especially the one of the porpoise underwater. It looks like it belongs on the cover of a magazine.

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