Experience Bellingham Bay waters as boating season gets underway

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 29, 2014 

With May in Washington state the traditional start of the boating season, many Whatcom County residents are finding ways to enjoy local waterways, particularly scenic Bellingham Bay.

For those who want to learn more about small-boat recreation, the Community Boating Center on Harris Bay in Fairhaven offers classes and programs for every skill level and for a variety of watercraft.

"We're a grassroots, nonprofit, volunteer-driven educational organization with a mission to foster small watercraft access on Bellingham Bay," said Steve Walker, the center's director. "That's our core mission, to teach boating skills and boating safety."

Planning for the center started in 2006 and it opened in 2007 near the Amtrak station and Bellingham Cruise Terminal, accessible by foot from the Fairhaven shopping district or by bus from downtown.

In addition to renting rowboats, sailboats and kayaks, the center offers youth camps and conducts outreach programs at the Bellingham Farmers Market.

"We generally rent anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 boat rentals in a season," Walker said, adding that some 300 students had enrolled in educational classes and boating camps.

Walker said the center tries to maintain reasonable rental rates, starting at $15 an hour for kayaks, rowboats and paddleboards. Annual passes are available at individual, family and student rates. Reservations aren't required, but they can be made for large groups, he said.

"We generally have boats to meet demand," Walker said. "Our most utilized watercraft are the double-sit-on-top kayaks. They're very stable and difficult to capsize."

Most boats are available to novice sailors, but a skills check-out is required from some craft, such as sailboats, Walker said.

Walker said many people like to rent a rowboat for the romance or nostalgia of the experience, while others are looking for a different way to see the waterfront.

"To paddle up to Boulevard Park and back can be a fun experience," he said, noting that sailors and rowers can see a variety of marine wildlife, including river otters, harbor seals and water birds such as kingfishers.

This summer, Walker hopes to organize special send-off ceremonies for out-bound ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway, offering reduced rates for boaters.

"The idea is for it to be a fun experience to paddle out and bid adieu to the folks leaving on the Alaska ferry," he said.

The Community Boating Center is at 555 Harris Ave. It's open for rentals from 10 a.m. to sunset on weekends until daily operation begins June 23. Call 360-714-8891 or go to boatingcenter.org.

WHALE-WATCHING TOURS

If small watercraft don't float your boat, try any number of the island tours or excursions offered by various companies based in Fairhaven or Squalicum Harbor.

But only Island Mariner can say it's a pioneer in the field of whale-watching.

Now in its 52nd year, Island Mariner in 1978 was the first to offer such tours that focus on the cetaceans of the Salish Sea, said owner Terry Buzzard. He recalled that when he started the business as a private ferry and mail-delivery ship in 1962, marine skippers weren't always happy about regulations aimed at protecting orcas, dolphins and whales.

"Back then, whales were a nuisance," he said, noting the irony.

Now, such tours are the bread and butter of Island Mariner, with its 110-foot vessel Island Caper. This early in the season, tours are offered only on weekends, but daily outings will be offered in summer.

Whale-watching cruises depart at 10 a.m., returning about 4:30 p.m., Buzzard said, with the Island Caper traveling 70 to 90 miles in search of the marine mammals known for their stunning breaches and other lively activity.

"Orcas are there, and also minke whales, grays and humpbacks," he said. "Gray whales are common this time of year, but orcas are the show. (The route) changes daily, depending on where the spotters tell us the whales are."

Buzzard employs a network of spotters from Victoria to Sydney on Vancouver Island to Vancouver, B.C., Bellingham and Anacortes. The company also has a seaplane for airborne observations, and the various regional whale-watching companies "trade information back and forth," he said.

It all pretty much guarantees that you'll see whales, with Buzzard estimating a 96 percent success rate. But Island Mariner offers a pass for a free trip if a tour group gets skunked.

In addition to the tour, Buzzard said a naturalist aboard ship discusses the history of the San Juan Islands, including the area's smuggling days, bird life, marine creatures, botany, geology and tides.

"Our narration is pretty extensive. It's more than just a boat trip," said Buzzard, whose tours have been featured in Sunset and other magazines.

Passengers are advised to dress warmly in layers, because the weather at sea can be vastly different from the weather on land. Buzzard said they frequently leave Bellingham in a steady rain, sail out to the islands and find sun, then return to continued rain in Bellingham.

The Island Caper has a snack bar with a range of menu items, including local meats and vegetarian and gluten-free options. But passengers can bring their own food, Buzzard said. He encourages passengers to bring binoculars and cameras, although the boat carries several sets of binoculars for passengers to use.

Contact Island Mariner at 360-734-8866 or at islandmariner.com. Their location is 2621 S. Harbor Loop Drive, off Coho Way at Squalicum Harbor.

HISTORIC SCHOONER

For those who are looking for a nostalgic sailing experience, the historic 110-foot twin-masted schooner Adventuress is at D Dock of Gate 5 at Squalicum Harbor for one public tour this weekend.

"It's all as if you would have sailed in 1913," said Catherine Collins, executive director of Sound Experience, the nonprofit educational organization that operates Adventuress as a floating classroom out of Port Townsend.

A final public sail from Bellingham is 4-7 p.m. Saturday, May 31.

Adventuress, whose maiden voyage was an arctic research mission in 1914 to secure a bowhead whale specimen for the Smithsonian, has been listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1989. Passengers will learn the history of the ship as well as about its environmentally conscious shipboard systems and its current participation in ocean micro-plastics research.

Public sails are $55 for adults and $25 for youth ages 18 and younger. A $95 annual household membership offers unlimited sails aboard Adventuress for all family members. To book passage or for more information, go to soundexp.org or call 360-379-0438.

COMMUNITY BOATING CENTER

Cost: Prices vary, starting at $15 an hour for kayaks and rowboats. Season passes are available for individuals, students and families.

Where: 555 Harris Ave., Fairhaven.

Info: 360-714-8891 or boatingcenter.org.

ISLAND MARINER WHALE-WATCHING CRUISES

Cost: $129 adults and $49 for children 17 and younger, with discounts of up to $40 available online. Season passes are available.

Where: 2621 S. Harbor Loop Drive, Squalicum Harbor.

Info: 360-734-8866 or islandmariner.com.

ADVENTURESS

Public sails: 1-4 p.m. Saturday, May 31.

Cost: $55 for adults; $25 for youth ages 18 and younger. A $95 annual household membership offers unlimited sails.

Where: D Dock at Squalicum Harbor. Take Gate 5 off Roeder Avenue.

Info: 360-379-0438 or soundexp.org.

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