The new and improved Orca trip


We got up at what felt (and looked) like the middle of the night and started driving the 81 miles (130 km) to Anacortez. We got there a wee bit late and missed the first ferry, but we’d arranged to have time to miss the first ferry so it wasn’t that big a deal. It was really windy and cold so we started doubting the appropriateness of our attire for the day but we were hoping to be able to buy some extra clothes on the island. There was about an hour’s wait for the next ferry so there wasn’t much else to do but wait, luckily we brought books. The boat ride took longer than I’d expected and was rather chilly so we were getting a bit pressed for time considering we had some shopping to do upon arrival.

Once ashore we found the check-in booth and also found out that the bus service they’d advertised had stopped for the season. Not much to do about that except getting a cab, but first we headed to the sporting goods store to pick up some gear. It turned out that it was probably a good idea to do the shopping on the island since they specialized in kayaking gear. Since we’d managed to forget our sandals (the sole reason we brought them in the first place!) we bought some rubber reinforced neoprene boots, neoprene gloves and a couple of caps. Out of the store we kicked ourselves for not phoning the cab before going shopping. The cab finally arrived though and the driver was a really nice guy that told us a few things about the islands, showed us the resident camel and about his former career teaching American sports to people in Dubai.

Arriving at Roche Harbor we scurried down to the dock and assured them that we were finally there. Apparently they had gotten the voice mail I left while waiting for the cab so it wasn’t that big a deal. We changed clothes really quick and shopped some picnic food at the nearby grocery store before getting the usual this-is-how-you-get-into-a-kayak-without-drowning talk. The rest of our Orca seach party consisted of two elderly ladies and our guide Blake. My first impression of Blake was that of some rich sailing brat, but he turned out to be a really nice guy and knew heaps of cool stuff about the wildlife and the area in general.

Since it was rather windy that day we got a little disclaimer speech about the tour and how it could be cut short if it was determined to be unsafe at any point, but we were assured that we would be refunded for parts of the tour if that were to happen. We hadn’t even left the marina before seeing our first harbor seal, poking his head up about fifteen feet away. They look rather funny, especially when diving, because they often just sink rather than dive.

Plodding along, it didn’t take long before we saw our first Bald Eagle. Now, I really didn’t count on seeing a Bald Eagle, especially not this early, but there it was checking us out from the branches of a pine near the shore. It’s didn’t look all that big, but Blake assured us that it would be about the same height as us sitting down in the kayak if it were to come up close. After some more paddling we came upon our first stop; a Bull Kelp forest at the north point of Henry Island (see the Roche Harbor link for details).

Bull Kelp are basically really long, gas-filled hoses attached to the bottom with a bladder and long, flat, rubbery “leaves” at the top. We paddled right into the middle of a largish patch (some 100 feet across) and rested for a bit. Since the surface was covered by these, about 2 inches thick, hoses, it was rather calm there in the middle. Blake took this opportunity to quiz us about the age of this forest, but not before telling us that they were attached to the bottom, about 30 ft. down and that they were swept sideways by the current and therefore about 120 ft. each. The ladies went with something like 70 years while we were a bit more conservative and stopped at 40 years. With an all-knowing smile Blake reported their age to be no less than five months! Apparently these buggers can grow ten inches a day, almost putting bamboo to shame (or so I thought, a bit of checking suggests that Bamboo can grow a frickin’ meter a day!). Blake continued to tell us about all the stuff they use Bull Kelp for; cosmetics, candy and all sorts of other stuff that I’ve managed to forget.

There was a short deliberation on how to continue, being windy as it was, the normal tour wasn’t an option since it would take us on the outside of Henry Island making us really exposed. So it was decided that we continue on down a little bit along the west side of Henry Island to the usual lunch stop and then turn around.

Paddling south was actually against the current, but being in a kayak means that you hardly notice. We saw our first fins after a while, Blake informed us that they were Porpoises (tumlare), sea critters of the family toothed whales which means that they’re basically a kind of dolphin, only smaller. A bit later, in the middle of a conversation Blake suddenly went quiet and the pointed to a couple of Bald Eagles. He explained that he’d heard them calling, and after that it was just a matter of locating them. The call was actually nothing to write home about, a rather high-pitched shriek, entirely unbefitting such a cool looking animal. According to Blake there is really only one bird of prey that has a somewhat more manly call; the Red-Tailed Hawk, which also means that its call is used in movies whenever they’re filming raptors.

After a while we went in closer to some rocks and Blake started peering down at the bottom, and pointed out two sea stars for us. They were really colorful and had lots of arms, an impromptu search suggests that they probably were Sunflower Sea Stars (Blake confirms they were).

Shortly after we arrived at really nice pebbled beach where we were supposed to have our lunch and we found out that we’d bought the boots for nothing. Blake pulled us all the way up on the beach so we had a really nice and dry landfall. Half the beach was privately owned and on other end a bunch of seals were lazying about so we kept our distance. Given the fact that we sat right next to a privately owned beach we told Blake about the “All Man’s Right (or as Wikipedia calls it; Freedom to roam) and he sounded rather impressed. He told us that in the Puget Sound area all the land had been sold off, even the land 6-7 yards out into the ocean that only shows at low tide. Apparently it was common elsewhere not to sell that part so that you could at least walk along the shoreline.

Following lunch we doubled back the way we came, a bit closer to the shore this time. We actually saw a couple of Deer grazing down at the beach and I’m sure we saw another Bald Eagle or two (the place was littered with them!). After a while Blake called our attention to the shore, and as we paddled in closer we saw a seal skeleton, picked clean. Apparently the dead seal had floated ashore less than a week ago and this was all that was left.

Upon seeing yet another wood shingled house we inquired about their apparent prevalence in the US. The answer was more or less what we’d already figured out by ourselves. They’re easily exchangeable when they break, they’re cheap and Americans like the look of them. But they’re most common in the northwest since it’s more forest there. Makes sense I guess…

Upon rounding the north end of the island we saw a little Mink roughhousing on a jetty. Which sparked a discussion about what a Bald Eagle eats and is able to grab. Blake claimed that an ex-girlfriend of his had her dog taken (well not a real dog, it was more like the Paris Hilton variety of dog) by a Bald Eagle. He reckoned that it probably could go up to something in the Shetland Sheepdog range.

Going into the harbor Blake pointed out an little island to us and told us that it was part of one of the first legs of a kayaking route that can take you all the way to Alaska if you want. The first part is called the Cascadia Marine Trail and runs up to British Columbia, there you can pick another route and in a mere three months you’ll find yourself in Alaska! Apparently there are islands like that one sprinkled all along the way where you’re allowed to camp overnight. We dropped off the two quitters, er… I mean ladies (well to be fair, it really was rather windy). Paddling back out, Blake suggested that we’d explore the south side of the island (the one we’d been on the north side of). So we were off to spend the remaining two hours just the three of us. We picked up the pace a bit since it was a bit more sheltered on the inside of the island and not before long we saw a Great Blue Heron flying by. We pretty much followed the shoreline around and looked at the various cabins and lavish houses. At one point we thought we saw an owl, but Blake just laughed and said that it was a plastic dummy, designed to keep the birds and rodents at bay.

Nearing the end of our trip we came upon another harbor seal. Blake got all exited because it was so small (like 1-2 weeks old), he explained that harbor seals have something called “delayed implantation” that ensures that puppies aren’t born until the environmental conditions a just right which generally means much earlier in the summer (Sea World suggests that it isn’t that uncommon though).

As we we’re coming back upon the harbor I was suspecting that we’d gotten some extra kayaking time for our money, that’s what it felt like in the arms and hands at least. But it turned out that we pretty much got the full five hours. That said, I don’t really think that their talk on the home page that you should “work out at a gym 2-3 times a week” to be able to keep up is really warranted. But I guess they need something to scare away people who might ruin the tour for the others by not being able to keep up.

All things considered it was a great tour which I’d recommend to anyone. The staff is great and the guide (assuming they’re all up to Blakes standard) are really knowledgeable. If you find yourself in the Seattle area looking for something outdoorsy to do I’d seriously recommend giving San Juan Safaris a try. It wasn’t a big deal that we didn’t see any Orcas, it was nice to get a good workout and to get more up close and personal with the Puget Sound area. We called for a cab back to Friday Harbor and got to see some of the remaining sights like the Krystal Acres alpaca farm. We were a bit too zonked at this point to really appreciate them though.

The boat ride and drive back to Seattle were uneventful and we arrived in the evening. We went to the store to get some travel food before packing our things for the night (the plane left early next morning so we had to get everything in order in the evening). Jonna came down with some sort of weird cramp-like thing in her arms and shoulders and literally couldn’t move a muscle which left me having to do all the packing. As a funny aside I found one of those SMSes that operators send to you when you’re roaming into their network: “Welcome to Canada” it said. Not that strange since we’d gotten Canadian islands pointed out to us during the day, but it still felt a bit weird and cool at the same time. I finally crashed into bed at half past one for a few measly hours of sleep.

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