09 May 2013

Whale-watching in the Saratoga Passage

On Saturday 13 April I was lucky to join a Murray family adventure from Seattle to the nearby coastal village of Oak Harbor, Washington, for an afternoon whale-watching expedition. Gray whales frequent the area in March and April during their migration northwards from Baja to the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

It was a chilly and gloomy late spring day in Washington, and the whale-watching company cautioned us that many layers of clothing would be required, because wind-chill out on the water would lower the temperature dramatically, and the boat was open to the elements apart from a canvas roof. We donned the offered wet-weather gear over multiple layers of thermals and winter clothing, and were glad of the insulation, because once the boat left port the wind was bitterly cold.

The outward journey south down the Saratoga Passage from Oak Harbor was marked by the sight of a chap taking his dog for a paddle around the harbour on his wake board (with the dog on the board, not swimming in the chilly water), and by a pair of bald eagles guarding the harbour entrance, glaring in a frankly irked fashion at us as we set out to find some whales to observe.

Our first two attempts to find whales were unsuccessful, so the boat crew took us as far as they could, level with the busy waterfront at Everett and near the ferry crossing from Clinton on Whidbey Island to Mukilteo on the mainland. There we finally saw three male grays. About 200 metres from the boat the grays would emerge from a shallow dive every few minutes, and either roll their back and barnacled belly in the air or, on a few occasions, flick their tail in the air. It was easy to spot their location from the plume of mist ejected into the air whenever they surfaced, but it was quite a challenge to get a good photo because we didn't approach too close, and the males weren't in a playful mood like the humpback whale I saw breaching off the coast of Rottnest Island in Western Australia last year.

Despite the chill winds, it was an excellent outing. We also enjoyed a pleasant Italian dinner on the way home at Pacioni's in Mt Vernon, and we all got a surprise when Tom stopped for a pick-me-up espresso at a highway gas station on the way home and the attendant turned out to be a 'bikini barista'! Clearly feminism has a long way to go in parts of Washington state - one website reckons there are a mind-boggling 126 outlets. Lucky she had double-glazing, is all I can say.
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