Despite living on Whidbey Island almost all my life, I’m not a huge fan of water. Never was much of a swimmer either.
But if you look at some drawings from my childhood, you’ll notice a fascination with the marine mammals. I drew a lot of whales.
I think it’s because they seem larger than life to me, almost like a myth.
And last week, I saw some whales for the first time.
I went whale watching with Island Adventures, which started offering tours from Everett this month. I and about 75 other passengers eagerly boarded the 101-foot-long Island Explorer 3 for a three-hour cruise in Possession Sound and a chance to see migrating whales — be they orca, minke, gray or humpback.
Our tour guide, Tyson Reed, didn’t quell our anticipation.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen the minute we leave this dock,” said Reed, who is a local wildlife expert. “It’s a complete mystery to me. We’re going to go out there, see what we can find, look at all sorts of wildlife, and hopefully find some whales.”
It was going to take a group effort to spot them. All of us, from the captain to small children, were tasked with keeping an eye peeled on the horizon. We were supposed to look for spouts, also known as exhalations, or a whale starting its dive. Both required concentration and a little bit of luck.
We weren’t even out of the marina when we spotted our first wildlife: California sea lions, lounging in the sun near the docks. Reed told us that the sea lions, known for their loud barking, came to Washington 20 to 30 years ago to feast on steady runs of steelhead trout. Sadly, their population will soon exceed the food supply.
Our captain, Carl Williams, took us west toward Hat Island, cruising at about 18 knots.
Though the temperature was a pleasant 65 degrees on land, conditions were cold and windy on the water. Some riders stayed inside the cabin of the double-decker vessel to keep out of the wind. Multiple heat lamps provided some warmth. Though I was wearing two coats and a sweatshirt, I bounced back and forth between the heaters.
As we waited to spot the first whale of the day, Reed kept feeding us interesting facts.
Gray whales visit the Salish Sea, a complex network of inland coastal waterways in Washington and British Columbia, for only a few months in the spring to feed on ghost shrimp and fuel their trek to Alaska for the summer. They spend winters in the Gulf of California to stay warm, mate and raise young.
The same group of whales — about a dozen of them — have been migrating here since 1990. They visit so consistently that whale experts name them and keep track of their lives. The shallowness of the Snohomish River delta, where freshwater mixes with Possession Sound’s saltwater, makes for an excellent feeding ground.
The whales — about the size of a Greyhound bus — can stay underwater for up to 40 minutes. It’s a discouraging time range for whale watchers, considering the fact that they breach for only a few seconds.
An hour went by, and we had still not spotted any whales. I passed the time by taking in the views of Mount Baker and Mount Rainier. They were beautiful sights on a sunny day.
Suddenly, a gasp from the crowd signaled the first sighting of the day. It was “Little Patch” or No. 53, a male gray whale. He was named for a small white mark on his back.
Nearly everyone grabbed their phones to take pictures or video. I was entranced by the sight of him each time he surfaced. It was both thrilling and slightly bewildering to be within 250 feet of him, and to realize that creatures of his magnitude live just beneath the waters.
Then Captain Carl spotted another whale in the distance — while a third also emerged next to Little Patch. It was quickly becoming social hour.
Williams expertly maneuvered the boat in a circular motion, maximizing viewing opportunities.
The whales breached every 5 minutes or so, marked each time by “oohs” and “ahhs” from all of us. One whale even stuck its head above the water to get a lay of the land, known as “spyhopping.” It seemed to look right at our boat.
There’s one drawback to viewing whales up close: the smell. Reed told us “whale breath” happens when air forced out of their lungs mixes with its mucus. It smelled like a mix of a fart and rotting fish. The stench came in waves, but never lingered long enough to ruin the experience.
The next day, I was walking on to the ferry from Clinton to Mukilteo when something caught my eye. It was a gray whale starting a deep dive.
I like to think it was Little Patch swimming by.
If you go
Island Adventures offers whale-watching tours departing from Everett between March and May. Whale sightings are guaranteed. Tours also available from Anacortes, Port Angeles or La Conner during the season. Tickets are $69 for adults and $49 for children.
For more information or to sign up, visit www.island-adventures.com.