My wife and I had the pleasure of joining her Uncle Robert on a late afternoon tour of Puget Sound around Whidbey Island yesterday. Robert had seen a Gray Whale feeding in the area in recent days and, although we knew the odds were probably against it, we all hoped we would spot a tell-tale spout as we motored along the shore of the island. A strong westerly made the waters choppy, and parts of the tour were a bit jarring as our small boat was tossed and turned by the waves. After cruising slowly around a calm bay for about 40 minutes, and having great views of River Otters, Harbor Seals, Bald Eagles and Pigeon Guillemots, we decided to head for home.
We crossed back over a windblown stretch of water and turned into another calm bay to get out of the wind. Robert was giving me a lesson in operating the boat on this trip, so I took the wheel as we headed north to return to the harbor. Shortly after I took the wheel I saw a plume of mist erupt into the air about 300 yards dead ahead. I was so excited that I don’t even remember what came out of my mouth in the moment. Whatever I said, Julie and Robert understood immediately and some rapid shuffling occurred on the boat. Robert took the wheel and steered us out away from the shore and out of the path of the whale. We wanted to observe the giant without disturbing him, and we also wanted to make sure we were obeying the federal law that states that you must stay at least 100 yards away from these amazing creatures. As Robert maneuvered us into a safe viewing position, I grabbed my camera and did my best to take some clear photos of a moving target while standing on a boat that was pitching and rolling dramatically.
We all watched as the whale worked his way up the shoreline. He was feeding, rolling on his side to suck up shrimp-filled sand and sediment off the bottom and then rolling back to expel silty water through the baleen which filtered out his meal. Half of his tail often popped above he surface as he rolled, and his blowhole made regular appearances as he exhaled and grabbed a fresh breath before submerging again. He was clearly a young whale, but even though he was only about ½ grown he still dwarfed our small boat. We watched him from a respectful distance for some time, and he was still working his way south, feeding in the shallows when we decided to part company with him. We talked excitedly about what we had just witnessed all the way back to the marina.
The encounter with the whale had a surreal, dreamlike quality. It’s hard for the mind to grasp the sheer size of the animal even when it is right before you, and the grace with which the whale moves in spite of that size seems magical. I almost feel as though I saw a mythological creature yesterday in the waters of Puget Sound, and there was a point in our history when myths and legends may have been the only places left where the great whales could be found. Fortunately, that did not come to pass, and the world is still blessed with these beings that capture our imaginations like no others can.