Back of whale with mountainous coast behind
Animals,  Coast & seascapes,  Lens-Artists,  Washington State

Thar she blows – eventually!

As we left Friday Harbor’s jetty, Captain Ken prepared us for disappointment. The only resident orca pod which had been in the area recently, had last night been seen heading west, out to sea. However, we still hoped to see some of the transient orca who visit these waters.

The Spirit of Orca moored at Friday Harbor

The Spirit of Orca, Ken’s boat, is one of the smallest offering whale-watching trips out of this pretty waterside town in the San Juan Islands; and we’d chosen it for exactly that reason. We were to be very glad that we had, eventually.

Landscape with sea and mountains
Mount Baker from the water

But although Ken took us quite a long way to the north, and although we had a lovely ride and enjoyed being out on the water in the sunshine, we saw no whales that morning. We did see a few bald eagles, and some harbour seals basking on the rocks; but no orca and no humpback whales, which are also often seen here.

BUT on returning to Friday Harbor Ken offered to take us out again in the afternoon, at no extra cost, as he had space on the boat. His suggestion was that we try to find some humpbacks who had been seen that morning west of Victoria, Vancouver Island. We decided to take him up on this kind offer; so after a quick lunch at the Cheesecake Bakery by the boat landing we were back on board.

A second attempt

Lady in a boat with spray
Enjoying the ride

We were joined by a family of four from St Louis. Once they heard about our failure to find orca in the morning, they agreed to the plan to hunt for humpbacks instead, and off we went.

It was a long ride out to the spot where the humpbacks had been sighted, and in worsening seas; but rather fun despite the splashes.

After about 90 minutes we arrived at the spot, where a handful of other small boats were gathered. It seemed that the larger ones didn’t make it out this far. I surmised that they probably can’t travel fast enough, making me very pleased we’d opted for this smaller boat. And yes, we did see whales!

Whale spouting with mountainous coast behind
Tail of whale with mountainous coast behind

Two or three were in the vicinity, blowing and diving from time to time. The seas were choppy (one of the other pilots, on Ken’s radio, described it as a ‘washing machine’) so it was hard to take photos. And owing to the long journey out we couldn’t stay as long as we might have liked; but at least we had seen them.

Back of whale with mountainous coast behind
Back of whale with mountainous coast behind

It was a long and rather chilly ride back. On the way, we slowed a couple of times to see bald eagles, including a chick, and the harbour seals again. But it was whales we had really come to see, and we had done so. We were very grateful to Ken for offering that second chance; and very glad we had taken him up on it.

Two large birds in a tree
Bald eagle adult and juvenile

As part of the cost of the trip Ken sends everyone a set of his own best photos from the day; note however that all of these are my own attempts! You can see examples of his images on his website: Whale Tales. I do encourage you to check this out, if only to see what we might have seen, with better luck.

While we were disappointed, naturally, not to see orca, we still had a fabulous time out on the water. And we were so grateful that we got a second chance and at least saw the magnificent humpbacks. I do recommend Spirit of Orca and Captain Ken should you be looking for a whale-watching experience in Friday Harbor.

I’m sharing this mini adventure as a second response to guest host John’s On the Water theme for this week’s Lens Artists Challenge. I enjoy being out on the water so much that it was impossible to choose just one topic this week!

I visited the San Juans in 2017


  • Tina Schell

    How great that he took you back out Sarah. we had a similar experience where we saw one humpback but no orcas. Years later we went out from Vancouver and encountered a pod of orcas cavorting, jumping and generally performing for us! Never give up as they say!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Tina 🙂 We’d seen orca years before off Vancouver Island so I think that made me more chilled about not seeing them this time, although I was still disappointed.

  • rosalieann37

    I think I have seen a baby whale breaching (in the DR) but of course I didn’t get a photo of it. Not only is the boat bouncing around, but at the time we were there, the camera I was using too too much time to turn on and focus and by the time I was ready to take the photo it was over. Either that or the camera wouldn’t stay ‘on’ long enough to capture the action which was at longer intervals than it could handle.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It’s tough getting photos of things that spend much of the time below the surface! I got my shots by using the burst setting and discarding all the rejects afterwards!

  • salsaworldtraveler

    Thar she blows eventually could refer to whales and Mt. Baker. I’m glad you got a second shot at viewing the marine mammals. I’m not sure I would have been well enough to do much of anything in the rough seas.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you – I hadn’t thought of Mount Baker in that context but that’s a great point! Neither of us usually minds rough seas, thankfully – in fact, I enjoy them, within reason 😉

  • SandyL

    Youtube videos and nature shows lay an unreasonable expectation for whale watching. We all want to see the creatures jumping in the air. Unfortunately, it’s not always the case and you are lucky to have seen them on your trip and to have taken pictures – bonus!
    Every spring 20,000 grey whales migrate up from Baja, Mexico off the North Pacific, past San Juan Islands & off the south side of Vancouver Island. This annual spring migration path is viewable from my front balcony and I’ve spent hours peering through my binoculars spotting whales. I see them but often its just their blow and then they dive and disappear. I’ve been looking forward to going out on the boats for closer look … maybe next year 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I think you’re right Sandy – people book these trips thinking they’ll get photos like the ones they’ve seen online of whales breaching, and while we’d all love to get those shots it’s not reasonable to expect them. I consider it a good trip if the boat captain and/or guides manage to find us any whales 🙂 It’s a big ocean out there and the whales are free to swim anywhere – it’s (thank goodness) not like a zoo where you can be sure to find them in a specific spot!

      We saw grey whales on a trip out of Tofino, our best whale-watching trip to date. We were in a small Zodiac and one whale surfaced right next to the boat, almost close enough to touch and far too close to photograph properly! That trip is on my list to post one day 😀

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Janet – yes, it was very kind of him because there are never any guarantees given when you book a whale-watching trip so he didn’t need to offer anything by way of compensation 🙂

  • Marie

    What a wonderful experience – We’ve never seen many whales – a few in Newfoundland but from the shore. Great memories…..

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Absolutely! To be honest I prefer a somewhat choppy sea to a smooth one – it’s more exciting and feels more ‘sea-like’, although it does make taking photos more difficult 😆 Nevertheless it was a bit of a relief that our long boat ride resulted in seeing some whales, however briefly!

  • maristravels

    That sounds like a truly wonderful day, one for the memory bank. My best sighting of whales was off Tenerife, a place I hadn’t expected to find them, but there you go, you just don’t know. I’ve had a look at Whale Tales too, what a great site that is!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari, that’s exactly what it is – a wonderful memory bank deposit! I hadn’t heard about whales off Tenerife but as I’ve not visited maybe that isn’t surprising 😆

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks – yes, it was a great adventure even with just these few sightings 🙂 We were so grateful to Captain Ken for offering us this extra afternoon outing for free!

  • photobyjohnbo

    We have gone on a couple of whale watching journeys, but have had less luck than you. One time completely skunked, the second time, one whale barely at the full range of my 300 mm zoom lens, and I was only able to capture the fluke in one shot.
    This sounds like a pleasant day to spend on the water, though. We’ll have to try it again.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Definitely worth another try John! We’ve actually been much luckier on some other trips. The best were on Vancouver Island – seeing orca on a trip out of Telegraph Cove and getting really close to grey whales off Tofino. I must post about those some time, although my photos from back then aren’t so good – or so many!

      • photobyjohnbo

        Some research on my part will be necessary to plan to be there during the best time for migrations. Thanks for the idea. I’ve been wanting to head north again. It sounds like things might be opening up at the borders soon.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          The orca are resident so no need for migrations – we were just very unfortunate that they chose this particular time to go for a sortie out into open waters! The grey whale sightings in Vancouver were in early July, if that helps 🙂

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