SAFE Whale and Bird Watching
First, let's state the obvious. There are lots of businesses and boats. Some leave from the U.S. mainland, some from the British Columbia mainland, some from Vancouver Island, and some from within the San Juan Islands themselves. So, where you will be located may be a major factor in your decision. However, we still encourage you to consider all the options.
For starters, consider that web pages and brochures are nothing more than advertising – and some of it is very slick. For starters, don't assume that the best web page or fanciest brochure automatically translates to the best whale watching trip. All those things really mean are that those businesses are good at self-promotion.
We're sure you've noticed that just about everyone claims to be the best. They are the most experienced, they offer the best deal, they have the most sightings, their vessel is best, their naturalist knows more and is more entertaining, and so on. Obviously, not everyone can be #1.
We'd like to share a few of our observations with you. Hopefully, this will allow you (and your common sense) to make the best decision for you.
Outside Deck Space
For starters, we think it's important to be able to be outside. You definitely don't want to be stuck inside, looking through a window coated with salt spray. Not only can't you see the whales or birds well, but you also can't hear them. And listening to whales blow or slap the water or hear the cry or song of the birds is very cool. An outside deck for everyone is important.
And once you're outside, you want to have some room to move. You don't want to have to elbow your way through a crowd to get to a good spot to see, only to have the whales or birds show up somewhere else. And you definitely don't want to get stuck behind a whole herd of other folks, leaving you with a photo of the back of someone's head. Room to move around is important.
Inside Cabin Space
Okay, now you've watched the whales, birds and other marine mammals and you're on your way home. Even in July and August, it's often cool on the water. After all, the water temperature is only about 50 degrees or so. So if your boat is traveling at 15 mph, you've got a 15 mph wind blowing over 50 degree water. That can be downright chilly. And this is the Pacific Northwest. While the islands are in a rain shadow (an area of low rainfall), it still rains at times. That makes it even cooler. Enough inside space for you (and the other passengers) is also important.
Now, here's a trick that some operators use. They advertise that they have inside space for everyone. But the way they accomplish this is by rotating passengers. Everyone does get time inside a cabin – but not everyone can fit inside all at the same time. To make sure everyone can be inside at least some of the time, they routinely ask people to trade places – those on the inside go out so those on the outside can come in. This is something you might want to inquire about before you make your reservations.
And here's one you may not think of. The elevation above the water can be important. Whale watching regulations require that boats stay at least 100 yards away from the whales. And in some parts of the islands, it increases to 200 yards. If you're seated in a small boat at water level, you might find it hard to see well. If you're standing on a deck that is, say, five feet above the water's surface, your visibility is greatly enhanced. And if you're on a top deck that is 10 or 12 feet above the water, you can see distant objects even better.
This also holds true for bird watching and sightings of seals and other marine mammals.
There are boats of all types – big ones, little ones, fast ones, slow ones, open ones, enclosed ones. If it floats, someone will claim it's a whale or bird watching boat. But not all boats really are. Some companies use boats that were designed for dinner cruises. Others were designed as sport fishing boats. Still others were commuter boats. And while some might have been designed as whale or bird watching boats, they may have been intended for use in Hawaii or some other tropical climate. So you might want to ask a few questions about the vessel you'll be on.
For instance, it's nice to be able to move around. You'll likely be on board for a fair amount of time, and being able to stand up, walk around, stretch, and move in and out can make the trip that much more pleasant.
And while you're at it, you might ask about the amenities. For instance, restrooms (although we call them "heads") are nice. On some of the smaller boats, getting into the head is not all that different than putting on a tight fitting shoe – you need a shoehorn to make it work, many boats not having a head. And while it's certainly not necessary, we think having a snack bar is a nice feature. If you're on vacation, you may not find it all that easy to make a lunch to carry with you.
Just about every boat will have someone on board who can tell you about the whales, porpoises, and seals. But there is so much more to the islands than just the marine mammals.
For instance, there are more islands that you can shake a stick at. And just about every single one of them has an interesting story attached to it. For example, as you can easily imagine, with this many islands so close to an international border, you can pretty well bet that there has been lots of smuggling activity over the years. (And that's a bet that you'd definitely win.)
And it's not only the history that's interesting. It's also the plant life. Did you know that prickly pear cactus grow in the islands? It's true. If you're interested in such things, you'll want to make sure you're on a boat with a naturalist who can talk knowledgably about the plants. And then there's the geology. And the birds. And the weather patterns. And the tides and currents. And – well, you get the idea.
But here's another thing to consider. Even if the naturalist can speak knowledgably about all of these things, will you be able to hear them?. Some have such a loud exhaust you can't hear anyway. You might want to ask about the public address system. Some boats don't even have them. That means the only way to learn about all these things is to follow the naturalist around for the duration of the trip. Fortunately, some boats have invested in some pretty sophisticated systems that guarantee that you'll be able to hear well whether you are inside or out.
Okay, every whale watching business goes where the whales are, right? Well, sort of. While everyone claims they do that, there are a few businesses that try a bit too hard to be all things to all people. So they build in scheduled stops at specific locations. If you really want to see the whales, you might want to think twice about going on a boat that has scheduled stops. It's just common sense. If the boat has to stop in Friday Harbor or Victoria and the whales aren't anywhere near those places, the likelihood of seeing whales just dropped down lower than a slug's belly. If seeing the whales is your top priority, make sure you're on a whale watching boat that shares your priority.
The same holds true for bird watching.
Number of Passengers
Now this will vary, of course. Some boats are bigger than others. So it's sort of relative.
All passenger boats are licensed to carry no more than a specific number of passengers. In the U.S., licensing is done by the U.S. Coast Guard. Some boats might be licensed for 6 passengers. Others might be licensed for 49, or 98, or 149, or some other number. The number is determined by a complex formula to ensure that boats never carry more passengers than is safe.
But be forewarned. Pretty much every boat is licensed to carry more people than is comfortable. While it will be perfectly safe to carry the maximum number of passengers, it's unlikely that carrying the maximum number will be comfortable.
So you might want to ask two questions. How many passengers is a boat is licensed for? And what is the maximum number you will take? Most boats start to feel overcrowded if they are over about 2/3 or 3/4 full.
Length of Trip
Here's another one that varies. Some boats go faster than others. So, in the same amount of time, faster boats can cover more territory than slower ones. But, as with so many of the other things we've talked about, that's not the whole picture.
Boats that offer trips every two hours or so may get you to the whales or birds quickly and get you home quickly. But to maintain their schedule, they may also have to leave quickly. If you really want to experience the whales, birds and other marine mammals, you'll want to go on a boat that can maximize your time with them. And no matter how fast the boat goes, that means you'll want a slightly longer trip.
Another thing to consider is that the faster you go, the colder it feels. If it's a calm day and the boat is going 25 mph, you've got a 25 mph wind blowing over 50 degree water. If the boat is going 15 mph, then it's only a 15 mph wind. What's the difference? About 10 shivers per minute. (Okay, so that's not scientific. But you get the idea.)
And even some boats that travel at a more moderate speed still try to cram in more than one trip a day. Again, this can be limiting. Any boat that has to meet a schedule could end up short changing you in terms of time with the whales, birds and other marine mammals. So while it may not be a problem, you never know. To play it safe, you might want to consider going with one of the companies that offers only one trip per day.
Also, as we pointed out above, there are lots of cool things about the islands besides the whales. If the boat you're on is zipping along at a high speed, there's no two ways about it – you're going to miss some stuff. For our money, five or six hours is just about right.
Here are a few other considerations.
Does the boat make binoculars available?
If you do get wet from rain or salt spray, do they have a way to help you dry off? (Some boats have a clothes dryer.)
If you want to spend time in Friday Harbor, on Orcas Island or on Lopez Island, the best way to get there is with the Washington State Ferries. Even if you take your car (which gives you the flexibility to visit such great spots as Roche Harbor on San Juan Island and Rosario Resort on Orcas Island), it's still cheaper than any alternative.
Do you enjoy shopping (window or otherwise) in artsy towns? Try La Conner. It's on the mainland and is a great place to spend the day.
Does an all-you-can-eat crab feed appeal to you? There's one available on a tour boat that operates out of Anacortes.
How about art and history museums? The Whatcom Museum in Bellingham has exhibits that are often extraordinary. And if you want more time on the water, they have been offering a Sunset Harbor History Cruise to sellout crowds every summer since the 1980s.