We decided last summer we would visit Washington’s San Juan Islands this summer. With no research, no knowledge and for no reason, we scheduled Orcas Island first. What a great choice it proved to be, especially our whale watching experience on the second day.
Ferry reservations, to Orcas Island, were made in March. With adrenaline fueled anticipation, we finally pull into the staging lines at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal in July. We now know, when visiting Orcas Island, time slows down the minute you get in line to wait for the ferry.
Eat, Sleep and Slowdown
In less than 24-hours it was easy to describe life here — Eat, Sleep and Slowdown. The restaurants were nutritious experiences, our B&B was romantic and historic, and the 25 mph speed limits on most roads actually felt too fast. Speed isn’t needed. Orcas totals just 57 square miles and is shaped with three downward fingers, none longer than 10-miles.
Rooms for Rent
There are less than 250 total rooms available at about a dozen small and well-aged hotels, resorts and B&B’s sprinkled around Orcas. There are no stoplights, very little commercial activity and zero fast food. I imagine, it looks just about the same as it did 25-years ago.
Bowser for Mayor
Eastsound is the only city. It’s mayor is a dog, elected yearly from a variety of entrants, as a fundraiser for the local school. I don’t know if a cat has ever broken that glass ceiling.
Remote, But Not Far
Orcas Island is not as remote as I expected. Cruise time on the slow moving ferry is less than an hour and other islands, within a mile or two, are present in every direction. The mainland, at the closest point, is just six miles east.
Mount Constitution (2,409’), on the east side Orcas, is the highest point in the San Juan’s. You can hike, bike, ride horseback or simply drive to the top.
Once there, you get a 360-degree view and ice cream from Sugar on Top, a converted 1940’s Air-stream. Snow capped Mt. Baker, 40-miles away, stands tall against the skyline.
Driving around Orcas was a visual delight. It is largely rural countryside with less than a half dozen very small hamlets. They each sit at the end of a bay and support small, local marinas. Most surprisingly, on such a small island with no rivers, there are over dozen natural lakes including two that are over a mile long.
The Kangaroo House
We stayed at The Kangaroo House, a 1907 Craftsman Inn that has served as a B&B for over 35-years. Charles and Jill were our soft-spoken hosts and Orcas Island advisors. They served wonderful, three course, organic breakfasts. My normal morning meal is heavy on carbs, fats and grease. My body said yes to this delightful change after just two days.
The house is very quiet, day and night, except for an occasional private jet shuttling a small number of the famous and wealthy residents to and from Orcas. Most of the rest of us use the Washington State Ferry system.
Dining in Orcas
Our first night, Jill suggested we have dinner at the Inn at Ship Bay. She stated that Chef Geddes Martin is the best on the Island. We said we like to eat late. She said the last reservation is 7:30. It was all the way across town, about half a mile away.
The Inn at Ship Bay grows their own organic vegetables and herbs, raises their own pork, buys only antibiotic and hormone free island beef and serves only sustainably harvested seafood from local waters. Our meals were sophisticated and superb, but early for us.
This island, where summer twilight lasts until 10 p.m., moves slow and closes early.
Day Two- Orcas (the mammals, not the island)
We explored the second morning before our scheduled afternoonwhale watching excursion.The streets are named for what they look like or where they go. We drove Enchanted Forest, West Beach, Killebrew Lake and Dolphin Bay roads on our way to and from the hamlets of Deer Harbor and West Sound. There, the wind was strong and the bays were agitated.
Back at the Kangaroo House, we wondered if we wanted to go out in rough water but Jill reassured us that these conditions often increase whale activity and sightings. It was a good sell so we went.
Captain Paul would be our skipper and Blackfish II would be our boat. He informed us, after fighting strong cold winds and whitecaps south of Orcas in the morning, we were going north to the Straight of Georgia. There, he said, the water was calm and Orca whales had been sighted. We were likely to see both local resident salmon eating Orca pods and transient seal killer Orca pods that had recently started hunting in the Sound.
Whale watching excursions are extremely popular and thank goodness there are some rules. Boats cannot chase whales and must keep their distance from both the whales and each other. No more than six boats are allowed to follow a pod.
We were not as far north as the Orca whales had been reported when Captain Paul was the first boat to swing left after spotting spouts about a mile away. He put us in the lead boat position to watch, not an expected pod of Orcas, but two 40-foot, 40-ton humpback whales. From a conservative distance, we watched them travel about 10 miles along the coast of Canada’s Saturna Island.
Each Humpback’s tail is visually unique and Sammy, the Naturalist on board Blackfish II, identified these two. I believe one was Habenero and I don’t recall the other. I was on sensory overload. She said she last saw them in Hawaii last February. They would dive for 3 to 5 minutes, then surface and spout a couple times before the next dive. Watching the final tail flip, before a dive, is elegant, smooth and such a majestic statement.
Humpback whales performing for us near Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands in Washington state.
Posted by Risk Blossoming on Thursday, August 2, 2018
Five other boats followed along behind and to the right of us, each about 400 yards apart. Captain Paul then turned further out into the strait and cut the engines as we got parallel to tiny Tumbo Island. He seemed to know the whales would turn toward us into deeper water at this point.
Wow, Wow and Wow.
The Humpbacks surfaced about 100-yards before the boat for a nice show and blow before a very shallow dive and glide directly under the boat. You could clearly see their head on one side and their tail on the other side of the boat for a split second.
What happened next was even more spectacular. As they prepared for their next dive, going away from the boat, their majestic tails raised into the air above the calm expanse of the Strait of Georgia. Standing tall above the clouds in the distance was snow capped Mt. Baker.
Captain Paul could not have put us in a better position. He never crowded or disturbed these magnificent mammals yet we got to see them up close. He could only offer, “Please send us your money shot. What you just saw was very special!”
Orcas Island has been on my bucket list for years. Our good friends, Christy and Tim Moore had lived on Orcas when their boys were young, and I have fantasized about living a remote island life.
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'”—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I am so glad that we were able to explore and discover this island. Orcas Island is truly a community. A community that supports its own resources and “localness.” It seemed that most everyone had a garden. Roadside stands offered produce, eggs, or flowers using an honor system. The Island’s residents familiarity with each other’s and the local businesses made you feel that you were a welcome guest in a kind, inclusive, and generous world.
Outer Island Excursions
The Whale Watching with Outer Island Excursions was certainly my highlight of this trip. After I saw the other Whale Watching boats jammed with scores of passengers, I knew that our boat with Captain Paul was the perfect way to watch the whales.
Tim and I shared the boat with only twenty-two other tourists. And each and everyone of them were as engaged and thrilled as I was to be on this adventure and witness these beautiful animals.
In addition to the Humpback Whales, Captain Paul also followed a pod of Orcas that was led by a magnificent male whose dorsal fin was estimated at over 6 feet. And then there were the eagles, the sea otters, the seals and the other abundant wildlife that seemed to be there – just for our awe and enjoyment. Sailing home, Captian Paul also treated us with a picturesque view of the retired Light Station at Patos Island.
It was truly a magic afternoon – and one that reminded and reinforced to me the magic of nature.
“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” — E. O. Wilson