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Orca tours draw off-island visitors

Shirley Aguiler and Esteban Gamboa of Seattle watch for orcas on a whale watch with Deception Pass Tours on Saturday, July 14. Aguiler said the experience of seeing these marine mammals was amazing. - Elisabeth Murray photo
Shirley Aguiler and Esteban Gamboa of Seattle watch for orcas on a whale watch with Deception Pass Tours on Saturday, July 14. Aguiler said the experience of seeing these marine mammals was amazing.
— image credit: Elisabeth Murray photo

After six years of offering summer tours of Deception Pass by boat, Brett Ginther and Terica Taylor of Deception Pass Tours decided to offer a gray whale tour this spring.

After getting positive feedback, they decided to add a weekly orca-watching excursion to their offerings. Passengers have been thrilled.

“It was amazing,” said Seattle resident Sky Avlogitos of Seattle as she recounted her experience watching as an orca breached, creating an enormous splash as its body crashed back into the water.

Avlogitos traveled to Whidbey Island for the day trip with her husband, as well as her mother and sister visiting from Dallas, Tex.

Every Saturday in summer, the 37-passenger high-speed catamaran Island Whaler leaves from Cornet Bay in a search for the Pacific Northwest’s most popular and charismatic megafauna – an impressive wild animal that just about every visitor to the region hopes to see.

As of Aug. 7, passengers on every outing but one since the season began in June have had a chance to observe these apex predators. Other cetacean species also are frequently sighted, such as the minke whales spotted by passengers on a July trip when the local Southern Resident orcas had headed north into Canadian waters.

After navigating through the whirlpool waters of Deception Pass, the boat jets out into Rosario Strait at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour; slower if the fog descends. When the captain guides the vessel away from the dock, he usually has an idea of where he might encounter these black and white giants. The company has a network of people who spot the creatures from shore on Whidbey Island and the San Juans. It also belongs to four whale associations that track these animals, and communicates with other tour boats out on the water.

The period between July and September is perhaps the best time to take a trip to see orcas in the wild.

Not only is the weather likely to be nice, but the chances of seeing a pod of orcas is much greater this time of year because the whales have gathered in the San Juans to feed on sockeye salmon that are returning to the Skagit River, Taylor said.

The endangered Southern Resident population of orcas – the whales that call this region home – depend on salmon for their survival. Their eating habits are different from transient orcas that can be observed eating mammals such as seals.

Visitors who take part in an orca-watching trip develop an appreciation for the endangered whales, Taylor said.

“When you see the orcas in their natural habitat, you feel compelled to protect their habitat,” she said.

After learning about the impact of their choices on the health of the marine environment, some people look for ways to reduce that impact, such as reducing their use of plastic bags and containers that could end up entering the food chain, she said.

As the vessel passed beneath Deception Pass Bridge, the captain slowed the boat down and pointed out some other marine mammals that are more common than the orcas.

On a rocky ledge on Pass Island, a group of harbor seals were hauled out in the sunshine. A small seal pup, one of nature’s new arrivals, nestled against its mother.

After a brief stop to photograph the seals, the boat continued its search for orcas. And despite a thick morning fog, passengers soon spotted the six-foot black dorsal fin of a male orca, swimming near a female with a smaller fin. As the female’s back arched and began to slip beneath the water, a much smaller fin rose to the surface. It belonged to a young orca, swimming tight up against its mother.

The whale-watching tours offer people a chance to see these majestic creatures in the wild, where they belong, rather than in captivity in an aquarium, Taylor said.

Passengers aboard the vessel were enthusiastic about the sighting.

“It is amazing to see the animals in the water,” said Vivian Murray, a visitor from Edmonds. “This is their home.”

The state sets strict rules on the distance that boaters must keep between their vessels and the orcas. Under Washington law, a boat cannot approach within 300 feet of the whales.

Murray said she appreciates that people are encouraged to give the animals some space so they don’t feel threatened or harassed.

“This is such a special experience, especially for people tho don’t live here,” she said. “I want future generations, my grandson’s grandson’s to be able to be able to experience this.”

Deception Pass Tours launched its whale-watching excursions in March 2012, and is currently the only Whidbey-based business offering such trips. The orca outings will continue until mid-October.

Taylor said she believes the tours help boost tourism spending on Whidbey Island.

“Whale watchers tend to stay overnight,” she said. “In addition, because of the timing of the tour, tourists often eat a meal in town or buy souvenirs.”

Offering Whidbey-based tours also helps keep sales-tax revenue in Island County. Previously, the only orca-watching tours in the area departed from Anacortes in Skagit County, or Bellingham in Whatcom County.

Murray, who came to Whidbey Island with her six-year-old grandson for the whale watch, turned her outing into an overnight trip.

“It was a big adventure,” Murray said.

Other passengers, such as Avlogitos and her family, had plans to travel back to Seattle at the end of a day of touring around Whidbey.

Orca excursion passengers are reminded to bring sunscreen and warm clothes as it can get cool out on the water. But most importantly they are reminded to bring a camera.

The crew has tons of parkas if you get cold,” Taylor said. “But you’ll want to capture images of the orcas that you saw that day.”

 

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