Outdoors

Seattle’s first half-day whale watch tour by Puget Sound Express jets you up in high-speed comfort to where the whales play

I was skeptical. Puget Sound Express was touting the “first ever half-day whale watching tour in the Seattle area on the fastest passenger vessel on the West Coast,” promising to deliver at least one whale and not take up my whole day doing it. But my previous whale-watching attempts had taken hours without results. Besides, the tour left out of Edmonds, and just how many whales would there be around there?

With the birth of four new orca babies this spring, though, I was still keen to try it out. And at least they were offering fresh-baked coffee cake.

The biggest deal with Puget Sound Express’ tour is the boat. Built in Alaska to haul cruise passengers, the Chilkat Express is a double-hulled catamaran-hydrofoil cross that can hit 50 mph, though the normal cruising speed is almost 44 mph. The cruise idea didn’t work out, but Pete Hanke — who grew up around Port Townsend in a boating family, and whose dad was the project manager — realized the foilcat would take his family’s 30-year whale watch tours to a whole new level. Instead of hauling over to Port Townsend, Seattle-area folks could begin from Edmonds and still make it up to where the whales play near the San Juans Islands in around five hours, thanks to the four 800-horsepower engines, four water jets and underwater wing.

Last month, the Hankes began those tours — including mine.

As we jetted smoothly out of Edmonds marina, I could see why boat people would love this vessel. It wasn’t any more noisy than a car engine, but we quickly overtook the other motor yachts along the way and were soon at Possession Point off Whidbey Island. Hanke, narrating from the bridge as his wife, Sherri, talked from the cabin, pointed out a cluster of California sea lions draped like giant slugs around a buoy. This year has been a bumper one for fish, explained Sherri, meaning more wildlife in general: Californian and stellar sea lions, harbor seals, resident orcas (who eat mostly fish) and transient orcas, who eat just about everything else. Some of the transients are tagged, but we know more about the residents, including the oldest one, J2 (aka Granny), who was born in 1911.

What I wanted to know was, would I actually see any whales?

“Today there’s a 75 percent chance,” said Sherri, “either minkes, orcas or humpbacks. We do get trips when you see none, but it’s rare. In June you see them on 98 percent of trips, in July 95 percent.”

As we cruised around the west side of Whidbey, the smell of freshly-baked blueberry coffee cake came wafting out of the tiny galley. Sure enough, Sherri bakes it on board, and the crumbly, delicious warmth made up for the gray day outside. With Pete pointing out landmarks like historic Fort Flagler, its white walls and a red roof surprisingly visible from the water, we sailed around the point where Port Townsend huddles on the waterfront, and suddenly the curtain of cloud opened up into brilliant sunshine.

And then we found the whales.

Part of the Hankes’ success in whale watching is belonging to an association of 50 such boats, all of whom cruise the waters and share information about finding cetaceans. Now, we’d had news from Pete’s son, who was manning one of their other boats and who’d found some minke whales scooping up fish from a “bait ball” created by fishing birds. Equipped with baleen — that mouthful of keratin strands that enable them to filter food out of a ton of water — minkes make use of the fishbowl effect caused by birds “herding” herring with repeated dives.

Coming closer, Pete cut the engine and we all scrambled out onto the front deck with our phones and cameras. Sure enough, after a minute of shrieking bird flurries and roiling water, the first fin rose gently out, followed by a curved black back. Too late, we all rushed over to that side, cameras pointed. Nothing.

Then: “There, over there!” and a couple of arms pointed, and there was a second whale, cruising for leftovers. I got some shots, but more to the point, intense satisfaction and sheer joy at seeing these enormous creatures just existing in their home environment.

From there we headed up to the San Juans, where Pete thought there might be orcas. On Whale Rocks, just in front of San Juan Island, we found a colony of sea lions soaking up the sun and were admiring the sloping, wooded beaches of the islands when Pete got the call: orcas near Orcas (island, that is).

By the time we got there it was a party. Three other big boats plus a dinghy and a yellow Canadian Zodiak were circling like paparazzi, angling for the best shot but mindful of the law that requires boats to keep 200 yards away from whales. For a long few minutes, the water was spectacularly empty of anything else, though the view of the islands was impressive.

And then they appeared, first one tall thin fin, then the other. As the orcas cruised slowly around Seal Rocks — where all the seals had wisely gone elsewhere — Pete followed at walking speed while the rest of us gaped in admiration from the deck. Transient orcas, their fins rose and dipped in graceful choreography as they ignored the two-legged creatures watching them.

It’s hard to leave that kind of scene behind. But the Hankes promise you a compact tour, and so we turned the bow around to power down Rosario Strait, taking the scenic route under the soaring arches of Deception Pass Bridge and along the coast to arrive back in rainy Edmonds around 2:30 pm: Four whales in five hours.

It’s a long day, no doubt: A half-day trip out of Edmonds still means several hours of driving for South Sounders. But there’s something fun about going twice as fast as any other boat out there, and even without whales you get a knowledgeable tour of the islands and peninsula, often bathed in sunlight. It’s a comfortable cabin, easy to walk around, with plenty of information cards on whales and other marine wildlife. And then there’s the blueberry coffee cake.

But the chance of seeing our very own Puget Sound whales hunting and playing — now that’s what makes this tour well worth every high-speed minute.

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