One-Day Getaway: Whale-Watching in the San Juans
I used to think there was no better way to go to sea, briefly, than a Washington State Ferry. The hour roundtrip from Seattle to Bainbridge Island? $7.70. Two hours to Bremerton and back? $7.70. But, just back from a whale-watching excursion on the Victoria Clipper, I have to revise that judgement.
We left Seattle at 7:45 a.m., and returned at 7:45 p.m. — having traveled into Canadian waters even — for a grand total of $70, thanks to a July web special. That is about $5.80 per hour. Their San Juan Islands Daytrip package combines a scenic cruise and whale-watching with a two-hour shore leave in Friday Harbor, a welcome break after six hours at sea. That really is the only thing to think twice about, that it makes for a long day, and there’s not much room for tuckered-out kids to nap.
Otherwise, be prepared for changeable weather. No matter what, you’ll want to be dressed for a windy day, as the Victoria Clipper III is a speedy craft and you’ll have a 30-mph wind in your face on the trip up and back. The open top deck has a windbreak at the front but if you’re standing up, it’s a bit of a gale. There are two decks below, with large windows, and seating adjacent them tends to get snapped up. A galley serves package breakfasts (about $7) and Ivar’s clam chowder and hot dogs. If you’re particularly budget-minded, as the boat gets closer to port each time, the hot dogs go on sale for $1.
In its northern journey, the boat makes its way between Camano and Whidbey islands, through Skagit Bay, and then threading the needle of Deception Pass. (Here’s a map for reference.) You’ll likely see bald eagles, seals, gulls, and guillemots — all pointed out by an on-board naturalist, who also notes sites of interest. Bring binoculars, or rent them on the boat for $5 for the day. My 300mm telephoto serves me well enough on land, but with the distances over the water I occasionally wished I had something with more oomph.
After three and a half hours, you stop very briefly at Friday Harbor to let passengers off, and then the whale-watching portion of the trip begins. Because we have “resident” Orca pods, the chances of seeing them on any given trip are high — tour companies advertise that 90 percent of their trips come with whales (not just Orcas, for that matter) spotted. One day that might mean fins in the distance, another, hearing the watery crash of a breach. It’s easy to see how people can get hooked, and make regular trips out. (Kudos to the Clipper people for maintaining a respectful distance from the whales, by the way.)
At 2 p.m., you’re dropped at Friday Harbor for a two-hour excursion. There are restaurants (the Hungry Clam boasts an extensive list of milkshakes) and shops all along the scenic port, and upon learning that you can rent bicycles for an island ride, I made a mental note to come back from an overnight stay. (Yes, the Victoria Clipper people have anticipated that, too.)
The trip back to Seattle is another three hours or so, and takes you from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Admiralty Inlet, past Useless Bay, and then as on the way out. Your chances of running into rougher water are higher on this leg, and you might want to take a precautionary dose of the $0.25 seasickness medication they have onboard.
As we left the San Juans, a seal poked its head out of the water to watch us go, as if on tourism-board cue. That was enough to keep me topside for the rest of the trip, snapping pictures and soaking up the late-afternoon sun.