For 28 years, people from across the country and around the world boarded the Mystic Sea to get a glimpse of whales and other wonders of the Salish Sea. Last month, Mystic Sea Charters closed its business and sold its boat. (Langley Chamber of Commerce)

For 28 years, people from across the country and around the world boarded the Mystic Sea to get a glimpse of whales and other wonders of the Salish Sea. Last month, Mystic Sea Charters closed its business and sold its boat. (Langley Chamber of Commerce)

Bon voyage, Mystic Sea

After nearly 30 years of providing whale and wildlife tours, Monte and Cindy Hughes “pass the torch”

Whale watchers will take to the Salish Sea from Langley with a different commercial tour boat company beginning this weekend.

Puget Sound Express, a company based out of Port Townsend, is taking over Langley gray whale-watching excursions from the company Mystic Sea Charters, which led tours for 28 years.

Mystic Sea Charters recently sold its 100-foot whale watching vessel named Mystic Sea.

“It’s been fantastic. We’ve had a great ride,” said Monte Hughes, who along with his wife, Cindy, started the company in 1990. “It’s time to retire.”

On the company’s Facebook post announcing the unexpected decision, the Hughes wrote, the time had come “to pass the torch to a new whale-watching tour company.”

They described Puget Sound Express as a longstanding, family-run tour operation in Northwest Washington with “four beautiful boats in their fleet, several prime water locations and many quality tours under their hull.”

Capt. Monte Hughes, in the bow, and crew member Dick Snowberger wait for the M/V Mystic Sea to pass an inspection. (Sandra Pollard)

Capt. Monte Hughes, in the bow, and crew member Dick Snowberger wait for the M/V Mystic Sea to pass an inspection. (Sandra Pollard)

Hughes said the vessel Mystic Sea’s next job is as a working boat in Alaska.

Numerous Whidbey residents worked as crew on Mystic Sea or volunteered as naturalists. All spent many afternoons informing people from all over the world about the wonders of whales.

“Mystic Sea has been an icon in our waters for many years,” said Coupeville resident Jill Hein. “I volunteered with Monte for over 12 years and it was a blast. Monte’s sense of humor made everybody laugh.”

Pete Hanke, part of the three-generation family that’s run Puget Sound Express whale and wildlife excursions since 1985, said his company will duplicate the schedule of Mystic Sea.

Whale tourists crowd the railings on a Mystic Sea excursion in 2014 with cameras, binoculars and phones in hand. (RJ Snowberger)

Whale tourists crowd the railings on a Mystic Sea excursion in 2014 with cameras, binoculars and phones in hand. (RJ Snowberger)

“Our boat, Glacier Spirit, will be docked in Langley and we’ll be there through April,” Hanke said.

Puget Sound Express tours are scheduled March 9 through April 29, 11 a.m. Thursday-Monday with an additional 3 p.m. departure on Saturdays.

Beginning March 16, the San Juan Clipper begins its whale-watching tours that begins and ends at Pier 69 in downtown Seattle. The 200-passenger Clipper docks in Langley for about two hours allowing passengers to take in downtown restaurants, shops and art galleries.

Both commercial companies take passengers out to look for a group of migrating gray whales known as the Sounders.

About a dozen of the mammoth 35-ton marine mammals hang out in the Salish Sea for weeks gorging on ghost shrimp in the tidal flats of Whidbey, Camano and Hat islands.

The same Sounders have been returning for years as a side trip during their migration from southern Baja to the Bering Sea.

Whale tourism provides a big economic boost to Langley during the slow shoulder season.

The Clipper is scheduled for weekend trips through April 21, bringing in an estimated 2,300 visitors, said Inge Morascini, executive director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce.

“We saw a very good increase in sales tax collection last year and the year before during this time period and expect the same this year,” Morascini said.

“After a morning on the water, the guests arrive hungry, ready to stretch their legs and to do a bit of shopping.”

Mystic Sea first moored at the Coupeville Wharf to board passengers for gray whale tours, and then operated out of La Connor. Five years ago, it switched to Langley after the Port of South Whidbey District expanded South Whidbey Harbor to accommodate vessels up to 130 feet.

Mystic Sea returns to South Whidbey Harbor after another afternoon taking visitors out to see magnificent gray whales known as the Sounders. (South Whidbey Record, file)

Mystic Sea returns to South Whidbey Harbor after another afternoon taking visitors out to see magnificent gray whales known as the Sounders. (South Whidbey Record, file)

“Captain Monte” is also known for his generous — and unusual — donations to Langley.

A few years ago, Hughes decided that the Langley Whale Center was the best place for a giant blue whale jaw bone that had been a part of his Anacortes office. It had been given to Hughes after being discovered “in a barn in the tulip flats of Skagit Valley,” said Fred Lundahl, a volunteer with Orca Network founded by Hughes’ good friends Howard Garrett and Susan Berta.

Every spring, Hughes lent his time and boat to help with Orca Network’s annual fundraising wine and whale excursion.

“He has done more for making Langley a whale town that anyone else other that Howard Garrett and Susan Berta,” Lundahl said.

Many expressed gratitude that whale watching will remain part of Langley’s fabric but also mourned the end of an era.

“The captains and the crew on Mystic Sea were the best, warm and welcoming to all, and very knowledgeable about the history, geography and all the marine mammal facts,” said naturalist and volunteer Bonnie Gretz. “I thoroughly enjoyed meeting so many wonderful people, and telling them stories about our Sounders, our regular spring gray whale visitors.

“The good ship Mystic Sea will be sorely missed in Langley and throughout the Salish Sea.”

— For more information, www.pugetsoundexpress.com

This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.

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