Bellingham's Terry Buzzard reflects on a lifetime spent on the sea

At 70, this old salt still runs Island Mariner Cruises

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 16, 2012 

Terry Buzzard is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Bellingham business. Given what he does, it's appropriate that he has a bit of a "salty dog" look.

His face, arms and hands are deeply tanned. He calls his high-tech artificial limb his "peg leg," the result of a fishing accident when he was in his 20s. With cataract surgery on his schedule, he jokes that he could wear an eye patch and resemble a pirate. His gravelly voice fits right in.

These days his business, Island Mariner Cruises, focuses on whale watching trips and chartered outings. His vessel is also used for History Sunset Cruises that benefit Whatcom Museum, cruises that Buzzard and historian Galen Biery got going nearly 30 years ago.

In years past Buzzard has carried people and mail to the San Juan Islands, visited the islands as the "Christmas Ship" a handful of times, taken on towing and salvage jobs, run charter trips up the B.C. coast and into Alaska, and helped clean up oil after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

All in all, a pretty good gig for a local boy who grew up on Lake Whatcom the son and grandson of boat-lovers, and who shares the love by restoring classic motorboats.

"It's been a pleasant way to try and make a living," acknowledged Buzzard, who recently turned 70.

He entered the commercial boating business a half-century ago ferrying mail to the San Juans. When state ferries and airplanes took over the task of delivering letters and parcels, Buzzard bought the mail boat and used it for a foot ferry to the islands and for group charters.

People enjoyed the scenery along the way, of course, but orcas weren't much of an attraction back then. Many people still called them blackfish, or killer whales.

"People were still afraid of them," Buzzard said.

But interest in whales grew, and in 1978 Buzzard began offering cruises designed for people intent on seeing orcas and other whales in the wild.

He's now up to his eighth - or maybe ninth, he's not sure - commercial vessel, the 110-foot Island Caper. The Caper was originally built to haul equipment and workers to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Buzzard bought it in 1989, after it had been redesigned and given an upper-level sun deck for whale watching on the East Coast.

He hasn't had any "perfect storm" moments plying local waters, but he has a boatload of memories. Years ago, for example, he was salmon fishing at Rivers Inlet, north of Vancouver Island, when he happened to moor next to actor John Wayne.

"Got to know him over the years," Buzzard said matter-of-factly. "He drank. He smoked. He played cards. All-around good guy."

Asked if he planned to retire anytime soon, Buzzard answered likely not.

"I don't know anything else," he said. "It's not been a bad way to spend 70 years."

CRUISIN' FOR WHALES

Island Mariner whale-watching cruises depart Squalicum Harbor at 10 a.m. and return about 4:30 p.m. on scheduled days.

Tickets are $109 for adults, $49 for youths 4-17 and free for kids 3 and younger. To mark the company's 50th anniversary, adult fares will be reduced to $89 from Sept. 2 to Oct. 7.

Reservations are encouraged at 360-734-8866 or islandmariner.com.

Reach DEAN KAHN a t dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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