Whale Watcher Watching

Whale watching is an idea I love to hate. And hate to love.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Orcas and Gray whales plenty of times over the years. The first I can remember was visiting Namu at the Seattle Aquarium, back when we were all too young to understand the dynamics of Orca families and the damage to separated animals. I was also blissfully ignorant of the tactics used to capture wild Orcas. By all accounts the captures were traumatic for whales and watchers alike. It just so happens that the most famous (infamous) captures took place not far from my current home, in Whidbey’s own Penn Cove.

Undaunted by the events of the early 70’s Orcas still visit Whidbey beaches. I’ve seen them at Glendale, south of the Mukilteo/Clinton ferry run. I’ve also watched them from San Juan County Park on San Juan Island. Grays visit here too on their annual migrations. I’ve watched them from shore at home and I’ve seen the Grays pass from the deck of Nepenthe, in Big Sur.

Lunch at Nepenthe, with Whales

Early one morning I was even woken by a mother gray and her calf cruising by our remote beach campsite South of La Paz on the Sea of Cortez.

But not once in my life have I ever gone “Whale Watching.”

Whale watching is whale hunting

Whale Watching is one of those pastimes I feel too guilty about to take part in. I REALLY want to get up close and personal with these amazing creatures, but I know how harassed I’d feel if I was trying to eat dinner and the Jersey Shore film crew swooped in, circling my dining room, beating on drums and watching my every move.

Every year my friend Jill goes out in her small boat and takes pictures of Orcas behaving photogenically. When I see the pix I always wish I’d gone too. It’s telling though that I’ve never called her to arrange a trip myself.

Ditto Whale Watching tours. Though I’ve been around them most of my life I’ve never taken one. From my years of SCUBA diving I know sound travels easily, but confusingly, under water. I’d prefer that boat motors not be part of the Whale Watching industry. Sails and kayak paddles, by all means. Motors, not so much.

Opportunistic whale watching

Still, I like to see whales when the chance arises. Last week one did. While in Friday Harbor I heard that the Orcas were headed for Lime Kiln Lighthouse, on the west side of San Juan Island. As my ferry home didn’t leave for 90 minutes I decided to run out to Lime Kiln and see if I could get some photos of my own.

There I found hopeful whale watchers doing the things whale watchers have done for eons:

Patiently waiting
Reading the interpretive signs
Image of people whale watching from shore on San Juan Island WA.
Scanning the horizon for tell-tale spouts
Looking out from lonely perches
Checking the camera one more time, just in case

I joined in the festivities, scanning, scouting, wondering and checking my camera, to no avail, no whales showed. Finally, just as I was flirting with the disaster of waiting too long and missing the last boat home, a bicycler came down the path. He announced to his friends that the ranger had told him the whales had heard there was better human watching down at Cattle Pass and had gone that way first. This meant they were going to be a little late getting to our area, which meant I was going to miss seeing them.

If there are whale watching boats, there must be whales

Reluctantly I prepared to take my leave, dawdling a bit, scanning the horizon one more time. All I saw were a few boats. Just then I heard the bicycler offer up one more tid-bit: “The ranger also said that we’d know they were on the way when we saw the whale watching boats.”

Sure enough, as I drove away from Lime Kiln along the rocky cliff, I glanced out to the Southwest to where the cluster of boats was converging. In the center of the circle were the signs I’d been looking for – patches of froth that marked the whales surfacing.

I drove on feeling a curious mix of elation and deflation. Crap, now I see I can no longer even enjoy watching a whale from shore without being part of the Whale Watching industry.

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