When I was planning our time in Friday Harbor, Washington, I had no idea that it would turn out to be one of the very best days in all our lives, because there was actually a whole lot that could have gone wrong.
We were in Seattle for two days before leaving for Alaska, and while exploring a new city is always fun, I wanted the second day to involve the ocean, the one thing Colorado doesn’t have. After looking into different options, kayaking with orcas was the obvious choice. Sea Quest Expeditions out of Friday Harbor was exactly what I was looking for.
Growing up in So Cal, trips to Sea World were a tradition. I was raised with Shamu and slept with a stuffed one. When we had kids, Sea World became our family’s tradition too, but looking back, I feel so stupid. How can it possibly be a good thing for these magnificent creatures to live in captivity?
Wanting to do a little pre-trip immersion, I watched the documentary, Blackfish. This could be a whole blog post on its own, but if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do. It is disturbing on many levels and heartbreaking, not only for the whales, but for the people who died or lost loved ones. On a side note, all orcas in captivity have a drooping dorsal fin, which in the wild is a sign of a sick or injured whale. I so badly wanted to see orcas in the ocean swimming free, if we could only make it happen!
Here’s the thing. We were staying at SeaTac and Friday Harbor is 100 miles north. Okay, no biggie. The only way to get to Friday Harbor is by ferry, and we had to make the 9:00am departure out of Anacortes or we would miss our kayak reservation. All right, we could do that. SeaTac is south of Seattle and commuter traffic is really bad on a weekday, so to miss all congestion heading north we would need to leave at 5:00am. No problem. We would rent a car, and leave in plenty of time. All of these were variables we could control and I wasn’t worried.
As the time approached however, and I began checking the weather forecast, worry was creeping into the corners of my mind. Rain was forecasted for several days and the thought of dragging two teenagers 100 miles to kayak in the rain and potentially not see any orcas was really disconcerting. Because that is the other thing…seeing orcas is not guaranteed. Sea Quest said we would have about a 70% chance of seeing them. I tried not to think about the 30%.
Even if we took care of the variables we could control, the whole thing could be derailed by those we could not. My worry was gaining momentum. I began talking to my mom a lot. (If you don’t know that story, read my first blog post.) I figured it couldn’t hurt and if there was anything she could do for us from her heavenly home, I knew she would.
The day arrived and we woke up to a clear and beautiful day. The drive to Anacortes was perfect and we made the ferry with plenty of time. I was starting to feel really hopeful that it was going to be a good day.
Friday Harbor is adorable! It’s very hilly with vibrantly colored buildings and huge hanging baskets of flowers everywhere. San Juan Island is a National Historic Park so I was able to get a stamp in my National Parks Passport. Those of you that know me know how important those are. Haha
We met the Sea Quest van and headed out to our launch point, where we got suited up in our suspendered rubber dresses aka splash guards. Our guide, Elizabeth was awesome! As she was giving us the safety spiel on shore, she noticed that all of the whale watching boats were boning out in one direction. “Hurry, get in your kayaks! There’s some action out there!” she yelled.
My heart was pounding. Were we really going to see them? As we quickly paddled out of the bay and rounded the bend, tears sprang into my eyes. There in front of us were the orcas I had so desperately wanted to see. And let me tell you, they were putting on a show! They were breaching and spy hopping and they didn’t stop. There was a cow and her calf breaching together over and over, and many others swimming by in groups or alone. And the first thing I thought was that my mom had heard me.
If you are within 200 yards of a whale you aren’t allowed to paddle. You grab the kayaks in your group and form a “raft”. As we sat rafted, we watched the most incredible display of nature I have ever seen. At one point a whale swam by us and it was no more than 30 feet away and miraculously I got it all on video. That was a hard thing. They were surfacing all over, so it was impossible to know where to point the camera. And sometimes you just wanted to be in the moment and not even take pictures.
When we were a safe distance to begin paddling again, we went on shore for lunch and Elizabeth said she has seen whales countless times, but she had never seen anything like that. We then continued along the coast line, through huge kelp beds and saw several bald eagles which was just frosting on the cake.
This is an experience that I can not recommend highly enough. Sea Quest was the best! Yes, there is a chance that you won’t see the orcas, but there is a greater chance that you will! And if you have a guardian angel like I do, it wouldn’t hurt to have a little chat with them.
I don’t know how many whales we saw that day, but every one of their dorsal fins was straight as an arrow. It was a really beautiful thing.