As soon as it got beyond the protection of the Ediz Hook breakwater, our tour boat bounced in the waves, driven across the Strait of Juan de Fuca by a stiff wind out of the northwest.
The captain pointed the bow of the Island Explorer 4 toward Constance Bank, in Canadian waters south of Victoria, as our whale watching tour began.
It was early July, and my family and I were aboard the whale-watching boat based in Port Angeles. We would spend the afternoon in search of whales during what has become a remarkable summer for whale watching.
Also in July, a fin whale was sighted northeast of Dungeness Spit. The sighting was just the second since 1930 of such a whale in U.S. waters of the Salish Sea. The crew of the Chilkat Express estimated the whale was 60-70 feet long and weighed 70 tons. Fin whales are the second largest animal on Earth, trailing only the blue whale.
In mid-June, a tour boat saw a pod of about 12 short-beaked common dolphins feeding inside the Port Angeles harbor, according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association. These are dolphins are tropical or temperate animals and generally do not journey north of California.
In April, passengers aboard a tour boat off the east shore of Whidbey Island watched as two gray whales fended off attacks by four orcas.
“We run tours that guarantee whale sightings from spring through fall, but this season has been unusually fantastic,” Jess Plier of Port Angeles Whale Watch Co. said on Tuesday. “We continue to see humpbacks in epic numbers.”
As we cut across the strait, a cup of clam chowder from the boat’s snack bar helped fend off the chill of the wind and cool temperatures. A crew member used a marker to update our progress on a map just outside the rear cabin door.
As we watched for the telltale white plume of a whale spout, our task was made harder by the white-capped waves.
Meanwhile, we watched other ships pass in and out of the strait. An outbound container ship created a huge wave as its bow cut through the oncoming waves. Behind us, cruise ships nearing the end of their journey to and from Alaska were making the turn to port and heading into Victoria, British Columbia, for one last stop.
Soon the captain’s voice over the public address system had camera-toting visitors racing to rails. A whale had been sighted ahead of us.
The captain followed up, saying a couple of tour boats out of Victoria had discovered the whale and were staying on the scene until we could get there.
About 10 minutes later, I could see the two inflatable boats in the choppy water, their occupants donning dry suits. The sight made me glad to be aboard an 85-foot boat with two observation decks.
Then we saw it – the spray as the whale surfaced and took a breath.
As our boat approached, the chatter among visitors grew louder, turning to “ooohs” and “aaahs” as the whale’s tail flukes rose into the air before the creature slipped below the surface.
Soon it rose again, only closer. We got a good look as it swam along the surface before diving again.
After being down for a while, making many observers think it had taken off in a different direction, our attention was drawn to the port side of the boat as we heard the “swoosh” of the humpback exhaling nearby. The whale, maybe 45-50 feet long, easily cut through waves. Then with an arch of its back, its tail rose into the air, water cascading off its flukes. And then it was gone below the surface.
Rather than follow this whale, the captain headed east, hoping to find minke and gray whales, as well as orcas, and maybe calmer waters.
Our search proved mostly futile on both counts, but we did enjoy the rest of our cruise. We watched as the boat passed through a tidal rip, the already large waves coming from the west made higher as they plowed into the the outgoing tide.
Along the way, we saw plenty of gulls, cormorants and some tufted puffins. We did a “drive-by” of the New Dungeness Spit Lighthouse. Off in the distance, we tried to identify the various San Juan Islands we could see. Mount Erie on Fidalgo Island and Mount Constitution on Orcas Island could easily be seen in the afternoon sun.
As the captain turned the boat back to the west, most passengers gathered in the main cabin to avoid the wind and spray as the boat plunged into the oncoming waves.
Most, however, kept their gaze out of the windows, hoping for another glimpse of a whale.
I must admit that during our journey back to Port Angeles, I felt some disappointment. After you see one whale, you’re anxious to see another.
Then I remembered how lucky we were to get an up-close glimpse of such a large animal.