Disclosure: I was not financially compensated for this post. I received a comped trip for five on board the San Juan Clipper for review and filming purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.
Earlier this summer, the crew from Explore Washington State and I recently set sail with Clipper Vacations to the Salish Sea on a mission to document our whale of an adventure!
Let me interrupt this article with a special announcement.
The crew and I live about 30 miles south of downtown Seattle. Thirty miles. That doesn’t seem that far in the big scheme of things, but consider this a warning. For our first attempt with whale watching, we left our homes at 6:30 a.m. with the hopes of arriving at Pier 69 by 7:30 a.m. for boarding. You figure one hour to drive 30 miles is reasonable? Well, we arrived at the parking lot near Pier 69 at 8:12 a.m. and the Clipper leaves promptly at 8:15 a.m. Yes, we missed it! It was almost like a slow-motion scene in a movie, we arrived at the Pier as the Clipper was leaving. Noooooooo!!!!! But it’s true. We got smart the second time around and left our homes at 5:15 a.m. and arrived at 6:45 a.m. to check in and….relax with some breakfast before boarding! So, as unpredictable as Seattle-area traffic can be – give yourself an ample amount of time to get downtown, no matter where you are coming from! Better to relax and enjoy the scenery than having traffic road rage all the way into the city!
Back to our regularly scheduled post.
We booked ourselves with the Seattle Whale Watching Day Trip to San Juan Island. This particular trip is available daily now through September 9, 2018 and then changes to Friday-Sunday, September 14 – October 14, 2018.
Parking and Check-In
The Seattle Clipper terminal is located at Pier 69 and your best bet for parking is at the Bell Street Pier Garage, across from The Edgewater Hotel. The San Juan Clipper validates parking in this garage for $10 a day for Clipper passengers. Upon parking, walk across Alaskan Way (watch for trains!) and then head over to the check-in area! If you arrive early enough after checking in, walk around the scenic waterfront sites and enjoy some breakfast at the Clipper Cafe. The Cafe offers light breakfast and lunch options – may I suggest the breakfast sandwich with bacon, egg and cheese on an English muffin?
The day of schedule is as follows:
8:15 AM: Depart Pier 69 in Seattle
11:45 AM: Arrive Friday Harbor (if you are going whale watching, stay on the boat)
12:00 PM to 2:30 PM: Whale & Sealife Search
2:30 PM to 4:30 PM: Free time in Friday Harbor
5:00 PM: Depart Friday Harbor
7:45 PM: Arrive Seattle
Seattle to Friday Harbor
The Clipper begins boarding promptly at 7:30 a.m. and leaves at 8:15 a.m. on the dot – so don’t be late! It takes just over 3 hours for the Clipper to arrive at Friday Harbor. Passengers board by group number and unless you are okay with the cold, biting wind, I would suggest trying to find a place to sit inside on the way to Friday Harbor. Our particular cruise was sold out, but there were enough seats on board inside for everyone. We did spend most of our time outside filming, and it was indeed very windy and very cold. I did warm myself up with some Bailey’s and coffee (which can be purchased in the galley)! While they do offer alcoholic beverages for sale at the galley, if you really want something, better get it quick, because they ran out of Bloody Mary mix on this trip!
The Clipper made its way north through Puget Sound and Skagit Bay, sailing between Whidbey Island (we did get to see a fighter jet landing at the Naval Air Station!) and Camano Island. You then sail under Deception Pass Bridge before arriving to the San Juan Islands. Whether you are braving the wind outside or enjoying the views from the interior – you can’t help but look out in awe at the scenery that lies before you. The Pacific Northwest is truly beautiful in every way and it still boggles my mind from time to time that I live here and this is all in my backyard.
Once we arrived at Friday Harbor, it takes about 15 minutes for passengers who were planning to stay to disembark before the Whale and Sealife Search portion of the day begins!
Whale and Sealife Search
After departing Friday Harbor, the San Juan Clipper takes you out to where the whales have been sighted! They credit the fantastic network among local whale watching operators through the Pacific Whale Watch Association, to share whale sightings, letting us know that everyone cooperates on the water. On this day, a pod of Southern Resident orcas had been spotted off the southern shores of San Juan Island, between Lime Kiln Point State Park and South Beach in the Haro Strait area (if you are familiar with San Juan Island).
On our way to where the whales were sighted, the Clipper sailed by Whale Rock, where seals and sea lions were relaxing in the sunshine, along with a variety of birds, including the majestic bald eagles! Our on-board naturalist, Justine, talked about each of the species, including how juvenile bald eagles don’t develop their white heads until they are a couple years old, and are often mistaken for Golden Eagles. I also learned that female bald eagles are bigger than their male counterparts!
When we arrived in the Haro Strait area, the magic began and it was beautiful. We counted around seven Southern Resident orcas, along with the male of the group, J-26 “Mike” – who was apparently performing a mating ritual (which explains why they were so very active indeed!). The whales were hunting, playing, spyhopping and jumping. We spent over an hour with other whale watching boats ooohing and aaahing!
There are different types of orcas that are found in the Salish Sea: transient orcas and Southern Resident orcas. You may hear those terms on the news all the time, but those names are misleading. Did you know that all orcas are culturally distinct? Transient orcas eat marine mammals and over 300 reside in the Pacific Northwest (from Southeast Alaska to California). Southern Resident orcas are endangered and feed on salmon. Transient orcas do not eat salmon and resident orcas do not eat the mammals. Despite the names neither of these types of orcas migrate. With the declining salmon populations, you can imagine how devastating this has been for the resident orcas, who numbers only 75 now. The world tragically saw J-35, also known as Tahlequah, carry her deceased calf for over two weeks in the waters of the Puget Sound. We are also closely watching biologists as they try to assist with the ailing J-50, who at the time of this writing, remains thin and malnourished. It is imperative that we all educate ourselves on what we can do to help protect these endangered species. You can find a number of resources with the Pacific Whale Watching Association here.
Washington Governor, Jay Inslee, also put together a Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force in March of this year. The Task Force is charged with preparing a comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering Southern Residents, with a full draft due by October 1, 2018, and a final report by November 1, 2018. Click here to submit any comments or feedback you may have!
Bigg’s Orcas are named after Michael Bigg, the pioneer field researcher in photo-identification. Dr. Bigg figured out how to identify individual orcas, through the gray marking behind their dorsal fin, known as a saddle patch. The Bigg’s Orcas feed on mammals such as harbor seals and harbor porpoise and have babies every 2-3 years. On a side note, the whale we saw, J-26 “Mike,” is named after Dr. Bigg, as he was born in 1991, the year Dr. Bigg passed away.
Free Time in Friday Harbor
As our whale watching time came to an end, the Clipper sailed back to Friday Harbor and we all disembarked to spend a couple hours checking out the city I want to retire in someday. I have covered Friday Harbor quite a bit, and you can read more about the town here.
Amy Nesler, the the Communications and Stewardship Coordinator for San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau met us at the Spring Street Pier to chat about life on the island and how important the orcas are to the ecosystem. She took us to a few shops on the island, including the Pelindaba Lavender Farm shop on 1st Street (I would buy everything in the entire store if I could – but definitely at least try the lavender ice cream – it’s so delicious!). Pelindaba Lavender is a premier grower of lavender plants, distiller of lavender essential oils and hand-crafter of lavender products. They cultivate all their flowers in their own organically certified fields and extract the essential oils from these flowers in their own on-site distillery. From these flowers and essential oils, they handcraft on-site a wide range of botanical, culinary, personal care, therapeutic, household and pet care products.
Amy also took us to The Whale Museum for a quick visit. The Whale Museum, established in 1976, first opened to the public in 1979 as the first museum in the country devoted to a species living in the wild. Today, the museum continues to promote stewardship of whales and the Salish Sea ecosystem through education and research, and presents natural history as a living history, not just as a photo opportunity. The museum strives to teach visitors that they are connected to the ecosystem, which is connected throughout the world. I interview Jenny Atkinson, the Executive Director of the museum last summer, you can check out my interview here.
Departing Friday Harbor and Sailing Home
The San Juan Clipper begins boarding at Friday Harbor at 4:30 p.m. and sails off at 5 p.m. – so once again, be on time! The ride home takes about two hours and 45 minutes. This time our crew relaxed inside at a table, played cards and chatted about our adventure (we also dozed off a few times as well!). The San Juan Clipper arrives back in Seattle around 7:45 p.m. and then the rest of the evening is yours!
I highly recommend utilizing Clipper Vacations for your whale watching adventures. They also offer day and overnight trips to Victoria, Vancouver Island and Vancouver, British Columbia (check out my one day guide to Victoria on the Clipper here), San Juan Island, Portland and Whistler.