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Washington Part 1: Anacortes & The San Juan Islands (Whale Watching)

Photo: Boating The San Juan Islands

This is Part 1 of a 6 Part series focused on Washington. We will spend one very busy week traversing a wide loop around the scenic state, hitting three gorgeous National Parks (Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades); visiting the fun Cascade Loop towns of Winthrop, Chelan, and Leavenworth; viewing a waterfall twice the height of Niagara; and even riding a car ferry across the Puget Sound to spend some time in Seattle. In Part 1, we will head to the little seaside town of Anacortes to take a half-day whale watching tour out through the San Juan Islands.

It’s our first full day in Washington State, and I’m excited to get started. We didn’t arrive at Seattle Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac) until 8pm Pacific Time last night, so we collected our luggage, grabbed an Uber to our hotel for the night (the Fairfield Inn and Suites Seattle Downtown) and arrived around 9pm. We were both hungry and exhausted by then, but exhaustion won out, and we decided to forego a late night meal in favor of bed. Luckily, that means we're up early since our internal clocks are still very much on East Coast Time.

Photo: Seattle Space Needle

This morning, the plan is to head back out of the city. The only real tourist sight I’ve gotten a glimpse of here is the Space Needle--which I can see poking up over the building across the street from our hotel. The plan is to spend a little time in Seattle at the end of our trip, though, so the rest of the city will have to wait. We have a busy day in store today, but first we have to pick up our Turo car* for the next five days.

*Turo Rental Cars:

I originally booked with a standard rental car company for this trip, but we had to slightly postpone our departure due to my getting sick. While very rapidly rescheduling everything several days later (I re-booked most of our trip in about an hour before we ran out the door), I hit a few snags--including the complete lack of rental car availability. I could not find one available car for rent anywhere from SeaTac to Seattle. I’ve never encountered anything like it. Then, my husband remembered a service his brother once recommended called Turo. It’s a company that pairs people with car owners willing to rent out their car. It works much like a rental car, but you are renting someone's personal vehicle.

We have to take an Uber to get to the car owner's house (some deliver, ours does not), but it's worth it not to have to cancel our entire trip over the lack of rental car availability! We easily and quickly collect the keys for the vehicle, a Mazda CX5. It's actually a significantly faster and easier process than renting a car at a rental counter (which always seems to take forever). The owner has handily left snow chains for the tires in the trunk. Not something we need at this time of year, but in the winter out here it would be quite helpful! Each rental comes with a certain amount of miles or can be upgraded to unlimited for an addition fee. We will be close on the 1,000 mile allotment we have with our rental, but if we go over, it’s $0.50 a mile—not worth paying for unlimited for the small amount we may exceed our allotment. Overall, the process was fast, simple, and saved our trip. I would definitely use the service again.

Once we’re settled into the car, we’re off to Anacortes. Anacortes is about an hour and a half from Seattle. It’s known as the gateway to the San Juan Islands, and it is also the location for the departure of our whale watching tour today. We are traveling with Island Adventures on the Island Explorer 5.

I did a lot of research on whale watching tours before I settled on a specific company. I wanted both an ample outdoor viewing deck from which to spot wildlife and the best chance of seeing a whale since this was our only chance to get out on the water during our trip. It also had to fit into our morning since we had quite a few plans for the afternoon. Island Adventures was a perfect fit*.

*Note: Island Adventures runs two 4-5 hour tours a day from Anacortes April-October (10am and 3:30pm), and they have a 97% success rate for spotting whales. Their boat, the Island Explorers 5, has three outdoor viewing decks, as well as two indoor spaces from which to take a break from the elements. (Note: It is rare not to see any whales on their tours, but it does occasionally happen. Island Adventures offers a voucher for 50% off another tour if you are on one of the rare boats that does not see any whales.)

We do not hit any traffic en route to Anacortes, so we arrive about 50 minutes before boarding begins for our 10am tour. I suggest to my husband that we check out downtown Anacortes in the meantime and maybe grab some caffeine. So, we drive to Commercial Avenue which appears to be the town’s "Main Street."

Anacortes has a picturesque little downtown strip lined with restaurants and quaint shops. We easily find an amazing bakery and cafe, Calico Cupboard, for a light breakfast and coffee. Their case is lined with delicious looking sweet treats, and it's hard to choose just one. My husband gets one of their signature flavored cinnamon rolls (apple) and a coffee, and I select a triple berry scone and a coconut latte. We take our drinks and pastries to a table outside to enjoy the relaxed downtown vibe.

Our snacks are a good choice. My coconut latte is delicious. I often avoid coffee drinks because I find them bitter, but not this one. My scone is not quite as sweet as I would have anticipated (in a good way); it’s enormous, and my husband’s cinnamon roll is equally gigantic. We don’t even put a dent in the pastries. We pack up the rest to save to snack on later and head to the nearby marina for our boat tour.

The dock is easy to find, and we walk down to the boat to wait for boarding. The Island Explorer 5 is a well equipped boat with 3 levels and plenty of outdoor deck space. We shouldn’t have any trouble finding an unobstructed spot along a rail if we encounter a whale. The boat is also equipped with indoor spaces on the first and second levels for keeping warm--which doesn't seem important currently from the dock but will be once we are out on the water!

When we board, I see some people with heavier jackets and winter hats and think that seems a bit extreme for a summer boat ride—it is not. We select a spot outside at the front of the boat with a panoramic view of our surroundings. However, as we get moving, we see that they are most certainly not kidding about it being 15 degrees cooler out on the water. Today’s forecast for Seattle is calling for a high of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The forecast for Anacortes, only 1.5 hours to the north, is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and out on the water here, it is able 50 degrees Fahrenheit plus a very cold (and strong) wind chill when out on the front of a moving boat. I quickly decide to go change into the pants I have in my bag, but even that and my long-sleeve shirt are not enough for the elements when the boat is on the move.

There is an extreme low tide this morning, and to me, that doesn’t bode well for seeing many whales. The captain seems optimistic, though. As we head out of the harbor, the naturalist on board points out some of the ecosystems that are visible around us that we typically would not be able to see at a higher tide. We spot several purple sea stars, which are usually submerged, clinging to the pilings and rocks we pass. I’ve never seen one before, and their coloring makes them look fake. We also spot sea anemone, the more traditional orange colored sea stars, and plenty of barnacles. Once we’re out of the harbor, the boat picks up the pace, and the air rushing past us gets much chillier!

We quickly realize that the back of the boat is significantly more sheltered from the wind and shift to a spot back there. It is a massive improvement in terms of temperature. We also take a few indoor breaks along the journey to sit warm up a bit more. The second floor enclosed space has comfortable seating with television monitors where the boat’s naturalist is explaining the geography of the region with some topological images. She also walks us through the various animals we come across; she is taking photographs with a telephoto lens* and projecting the close-up images of the animals to explain their unique adaptations and physical features.

*Note: Thumb drives with each trip’s unique pictures are available for purchase at the end of the tour.

The waterways of the San Juan Islands seem to function more like highways. We pass many ferries connecting the various islands surrounding us. Some are rather large, carrying cars, while others are significantly smaller, transporting passengers or cargo. There are also plenty of gorgeous sail boats out on the water today, and I can see why. There’s no shortage of wind out here! They effortlessly cut across the calm, sheltered waters surrounding us.

More than 170 Islands make up the archipelago, and each one comes with its own unique vibe, differing population density (some with none), and varying degree of remoteness. Some of the homes we pass are only reachable via boat or seaplane. We even get to see a seaplane landing in front of one! I would love to come back here someday just to explore all of these charismatic little islands. I’m happy that our tour gives us an opportunity to get an overview of this unique area.

After a short while, our boat encounters a rock poking out of the water with a group of harbor seals sunning themselves, and we stop for a closer look. The naturalist on board explains that harbor seals have fused hip bones so they are not very nimble on land, but in the sea, they are acrobats. They’re also pretty smart and they will utilize high tide to get onto a rocky perch and then just hang out in the sun there as the water slowly recedes around them.

Beyond the harbor seals, we pass through a very narrow channel between two islands. Our captain points out that the tide is still receding and that the current can get quite strong in this spot when the tide is rushing out or back in. He says the water is so low in this area right now that they are seeing land they don’t typically see during most of the year.

In summer, the San Juan Islands are home to three distinct pods of Killer Whales (Orcas), as well as groups of Minke Whales and Humpback Whales. Whales can swim more than 100 miles in a day, and they are always on the move. We are looking for any of these three species on our expedition today. I really want to see an Orca in its natural element, but I’m excited just to be able to take in the San Juan Islands from the water. They’re beautiful, and we have a nice clear day for our trip.

I’m surprised how far the boat is traveling on our four hour journey. They must go through quit a bit of fuel. We even cross into Canadian waters. I know this because my cell phone welcomes me to Canada at one point and warns me of my new service rates. However, it's also fairly easy to tell how far north we have ventured just based on the wall of snow-capped mountains we see to our north. The reason we cross into Canadian waters is a Humpback Whale sighting*. It is the only whale siting that’s been reported in the area so far today, and the captain has steered us in that direction to take a look.

*Note: The whale watching boats do not use sonar, so they must rely on one another to a provide alerts when whales are spotted in various areas.

Humpback whales are the largest whales we could potentially encounter on this tour--they range from 12-16 meters long and weigh approximately 36 metric tons. For the most part, they are solitary travelers, so we are looking for one whale, but one whale is definitely better than no whale! Pretty soon, the captain has the boat expertly maneuvered up alongside the whale (at a safe distance away). I’m surprised at how little of the whale is visible from the surface given its size—it’s amazing they are able to spot a single whale in the water at all!

We can see the whale’s dorsal fin emerging periodically as it feeds. They submerge for several minutes at a time but leave what the captain refers to as “whale footprints” under the surface which are just visible from above. We follow its footprints (flat rings at the top of the water) until the whale surfaces again. The exhalation the whale makes as it surfaces before taking a breath is quite audible, so by listening for that, we can spot where it is surfacing fairly quickly. Which is good since the whale is only up for a few seconds before it ducks back beneath the surface again. It’s not quite the pod of orcas I imagined, but it’s still a very neat to experience!

We follow the humpback whale for a while, getting to see it surface several more times. It never lifts its tail out of the water—a shame from a photographer's perspective--but it is still such a unique experience regardless. After about 30 minutes, we turn back to U.S. waters in search of some more wildlife as we work our way back toward Anacortes.

Photo: Humpback Whale Figurine

Even if we see nothing else for the rest of the ride, the tour has definitely been worth it. With that in mind, we decide to take a few minutes break and head downstairs. The lower level of the boat has an indoor space with tables to sit at and a food and beverage service area. We want to warm up a bit and get some food. My husband decides to try the boat’s chili, and I get a hot dog. The hot dog is surprisingly good and comes on a much nicer roll than you typically get with a hot dog. They are also serving hot beverages and draft beers—a tough call since I’m pretty chilly--but we decide to go with the beer, each trying a different one.

As we are finishing up our food, the capital announces that we are coming to a spot that is very picturesque and often attracts wildlife; so we head back out to the front of the boat. There are several small, rocky islets surrounding us, and we can see the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The landscape is stunning, but we also get to spot some sea lions and harbor seals. The two species are sharing a large rocky outcropping in the water. The capital slows so we can better see the animals. The sea lions are playing in the water around their rock and are fun to watch. They remind me a little bit of dogs, complete with the bark, playfully biting at one another and splashing in the water.

We can visibly see the difference between the two species, and the naturalist on board elaborates a bit for us, as well. Sea lions are larger than harbor seals and are equipped with larger flippers. Sea lions also tend to be quite a bit noisier, and they have visible outer ears unlike harbor seals. Sea lions can also get around better on land than harbor seals who are designed to maneuver more quickly in the water. It's fun to view both types of animals together to discern their differences firsthand.

Just past that rock, we pass several turkey buzzards. The naturalist on board comments that there must be a meal nearby--turkey buzzards only eats carion. We also see two mature bald eagles perched on a log. They are gorgeous. We even get to see them both take flight.

This stop is really the last wildlife we see on the tour. Alas, the San Juan orca pods have been elusive today. There's always next time! We've seen quite a bit of variety in only four hours. From the highlight of an immense humpback whale to various aquatic life and avian specimens--and the gorgeous island scenery--we've had a wonderful and action-packed morning. We still have a busy afternoon ahead of us, though!

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins


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