Longtime whale-watching boat making a return to Bellingham waters with new look

Tom Hofseth leans a piece of siding against a couch after tearing it from the wall inside the Island Caper on Tuesday, Sept. 4, in Bellingham.
Tom Hofseth leans a piece of siding against a couch after tearing it from the wall inside the Island Caper on Tuesday, Sept. 4, in Bellingham.

A longtime Bellingham whale-watching boat is getting a major makeover.

The Island Caper was recently purchased and is being managed by a group called Pacific Northwest Cruises. The group consists of Kenny McCray, Tom Hofseth and Xander Eustler. The 110-foot boat was a fixture in local waters from the mid-1990s until owner Terry Buzzard died in 2016. The Island Caper has remained at a boat slip in the Squalicum Harbor.

The new owners plan to work on the boat through the fall and winter and have it ready for late spring or early summer events around Bellingham and Seattle, McCray said. The “heart” of the Island Caper, including the engines, are in good shape, McCray said. The makeover will include repainting the outside, pulling out the seating and working with an interior designer to create a more restaurant-style setting.

The Island Caper was mostly known for its whale watching tours — and a life-size orca model that advertised Buzzard’s businesses at Squalicum Harbor — but it also had dinner events.

The revamped Island Caper will continue to provide regular watching tours, but also provide a fine-dining experience to draw in local residents who want to enjoy views around Bellingham Bay. Plans call for a chef to be on board, along with a bar.

“We want to draw people from out of the area for the whale watching, but we also want to be one of the best places to eat,” McCray said.

McCray, Hofseth and Eustler bring different career backgrounds to this operation. McCray’s previous career was as a government bank examiner, while Hofseth has a background in commercial fishing. Eutsler has worked in event planning and the restaurant business.

All three wanted to get into the tour boat business, originally looking at Alaska. When they heard the Island Caper was available, they did a feasibility study and decided the opportunity in Bellingham fit their business plan.

McCray said they are also planning to spend a lot of time studying the whale-watching industry, consulting with environmental groups on best practices to follow. Given the dramatic stories about the local J- Pod suffering from illnesses earlier this summer, McCray said they don’t want to become part of the problem.

“We want to make sure we are supporting the right causes and staying a safe distance,” McCray said.

The one thing that is staying the same is the Island Caper name.

“It has quite a history here. Everyone seemed to know Terry Buzzard,” McCray said.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz