by Nancy Bestor
With some trepidation, I put on my bright orange Coast Guard approved anti-exposure suit. We were preparing to board a 27-foot inflatable Zodiac boat for a three-hour tour of the Puget Sound, hoping to spot whales. I wasn’t worried about falling in the water, nor was I worried that an Orca whale would capsize our boat. I was worried that I might have to use the bathroom, and I knew I would be out of luck.
We had booked a whale watching excursion with Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours out of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Their price was in line with all the other tour companies ($99 each, plus a 15% discount for booking at least 14 days in advance, with no cancellation), and they came highly recommended, both from satisfied customers on www.TripAdvisor.com, and from the Lonely Planet guide for Washington. Western Prince offers two types of excursions for whale watching, a 32-passenger charter boat (with restroom!), or a much closer to the water, survival suit required, high speed ride on the aforementioned 15-passenger Zodiac. Being adventurous (we like to tempt fate when it comes to a lack of restrooms), we chose the more daring option. We were not disappointed.
Our crew included Captain Ivan (owner of Western Prince Tours), and naturalist Alison, who explained everything we saw in great and enthusiastic detail. Western Prince, like every other whale watching company, cannot guarantee seeing whales, so we set out onto the Sound at 30 knots, survival suits zipped up and fingers crossed. It was a lovely day in the San Juan Islands, but the experts at Western Prince advised us we’d get cold and wind blown, so in addition to the exposure suits, they also provided hats, gloves and goggles. Although at first I felt as if I was off on a ski run and not a boat trip, I was glad to have these items, as 30 knots in an inflatable boat can get quite chilly.
Right off the bat we were delighted to spot Stellar Sea Lions and Harbor Seals, frolicking about in the water, and soon after we were treated to the big guys, – about ten Orca whales, along with a few Minke whales too, swimming and playing, with their dorsal fins sliding along the surface and their flukes plunging into the water. Local rules keep boats at least 200 yards from these great mammals whenever possible, but as big as they are, the whales were easy to see and enjoy. Having a naturalist on boat was fantastic; Alison told us about each whale (most are named and have had their personal history tracked since birth) and what their pod was doing, what type of food they eat, their habits, where they are normally found and much more.
The thoroughly delightful three hours went by quite quickly, and although I thought I might want to stay out longer, I was ready to head back to land, eat some lunch, and find a bathroom.