FRIDAY HARBOR — The family of killer whales was swimming in the distance, surfacing every few minutes to the thrill of two dozen attentive humans nearby, bobbing in a jet boat in the water northwest of Seattle.
“Where’s Stanley?” I asked, referring to the largest member of this traveling pod, a massive, 36-foot-long orca I had just been introduced to via guide Elah Davidson.
And just like that, he emerged in front of our boat, perhaps 25 feet away, his massive dorsal fin erect in the water, his white eye spot seemingly looking our way.
By law, whale-watching boats in Washington are required to stay at least 100 yards away from marine animals. “We have really strict regulations,” said Davidson, a guide with Western Prince Whale Watching Adventures. “But the whales don’t read the regulations.”
We stood still in awe, mesmerized by the sight.
The San Juan Islands, an archipelago of more than 170 islands northwest of Seattle, are considered among the best places in the United States to whale watch, and my experience last month confirmed it.
The three-hour tour was a highlight of a two-day trip to San Juan Island, a hilly, lush spot about a 60-minute ferry ride from mainland Washington. It wasn’t the only highlight, however.
We also explored the picturesque port town of Friday Harbor, visited a lavender farm, ate oysters straight from the sea and learned about a bizarre border dispute between the United States and Great Britain known as the Pig War.
More than what we did, however, was how the place made us feel. Time slows down on most islands, forcing you to operate at a slower pace. Just driving around this beautiful place brought my blood pressure down a few points.
I added a couple of days to my recent Seattle itinerary to make a first visit to the San Juans, which are relatively unknown to most Midwest travelers.
If you’re planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest during the warmer months, I highly suggest you, too, get out of the city and experience some island time.
San Juan is one of four easily accessible San Juan Islands, linked to the mainland primarily via the Washington State Ferries system, which makes regular runs between the islands and Anacortes, a coastal town about 80 miles north of Seattle.
With a population of about 7,000, San Juan is the most populous and most visited of the San Juans. The other three — Orcas, Lopez and Shaw — are likely also worth a visit, but planning a vacation is full of hard choices.
I initially envisioned San Juan Island as a larger version of Ohio’s Kelleys Island or Put-in-Bay, figuring I could leave my rental car behind and bike to any sights. The woman who took my reservation at the Discovery Inn disavowed me of that thought.
“We’re 40 miles around,” she said. “And we’re not flat.”
Indeed, the entire island is about 55 square miles, with a top elevation of 1,080 feet.
I did see some hearty souls biking around the island, but having a car made exploration a lot easier. It does require some advanced planning, however, thanks to an elaborate reservation system employed by Washington State Ferries.
The ferry drops visitors off in downtown Friday Harbor, on the east side of the island. There are a couple dozen restaurants here, plus bookstores, art galleries, souvenir shops, the Whale Museum, a small movie theater and a performing arts center.
We ate almost all of our meals here, bought hats and gloves for whale watching, enjoyed lavender ice cream and bubble tea, and watched ferry boats and float planes come and go.
Parks and more
On our first full day on the island, we set out for San Juan Island National Historical Park, a National Park Service site comprising 2,141 acres. The park is in two parts — American Camp, at the far southern end of the island, and English Camp, at the northern end. It celebrates the peaceful resolution of the Pig War, a border dispute in the mid-19th century that almost ended in armed conflict.
The dispute was the result of confusion caused by the 1846 Treaty of Oregon, which established the border between Britain and the United States. Imprecise language caused both the British and Americans to claim the San Juan Islands as their own.
The dispute almost led to war in 1859, when an American farmer shot a British pig rooting in his garden. For a dozen years, the two countries maintained active troops on the island, in a joint military occupation. Finally, in 1871, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany was recruited to mediate the dispute. He ruled that the land belonged to the United States, and in 1872, Britain left for good — although the Union Jack still flies over the English Camp.
“It’s the only national park where you’ll see another nation’s flag flying,” park volunteer Ray Schaefer told me.
The park features a collection of historic buildings, including barracks and block houses; miles of trails and scenic overlooks; plus two visitor centers offering an overview of the conflict. The American Camp area includes South Beach, a gorgeous stretch of shoreline with stunning views across the Puget Sound of the snow-capped Olympic Mountains in the distance.
From the national park, we headed to Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of the island. It’s also known as Whale Watch Park and is considered among the best places in the world to see whales from land.
A family from California and a couple of serious nature photographers were set up at a lookout point, scouring the water for fins, to no avail. Even without whales, it’s a picturesque stop, with a historic lighthouse on site and trails along the water.
Other stops on our island tour:
- Pelindaba Lavender Farm, with 25 acres in the middle of the island, showcasing row upon row of the fragrant, vibrant herb. An expansive gift shop offers everything from lavender lotion to lip balm to jams and tea. Outside, enjoy lavender ice cream, lavender lemonade and lavender cookies — or bring your own treats and picnic among the plants.
- The Farm at Krystal Acres, with several dozen alpacas roaming the field and a store selling sweaters, socks, stuffed animals and other items made from alpaca fiber.
- San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, a 20-acre outdoor art museum with a terrific range of works, both whimsical and more reflective.
The sculpture park is at the northern end of the island, near Roche Harbor, a resort community with roots dating back to the 1880s. It features several restaurants that are open to the public, plus a huge marina and a nightly Colors Ceremony that includes a cannon blast and the lowering of three flags — those of the United States, Canada and Great Britain.
Nearby is the Westcott Bay Shellfish Co., which offers one of the most unique dining experiences you’ll find anywhere. Diners are seated outside, at tables overlooking the water, where you can watch oyster farmers harvest your lunch.
Amy Nesler, with the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, convinced me to give it another try, in part because the Salish Sea — the collective body of water that stretches from Olympia to north of Vancouver, B.C. — isn’t typically as rough as the open ocean.
It’s filled with nutrient-dense water and packed with wildlife, including two communities of killer whales that make their home here: Southern resident killer whales, which feed primarily on fish, mostly Chinook salmon, and are endangered; and transient orcas, which eat other marine mammals, including seals and porpoises. The transient orca population is thriving.
We departed from Friday Harbor and headed north into Canadian waters, first passing a pod of Southern resident whales, barely visible from our boat. Because this group is so threatened, boats are required to give them a wide berth.
It wasn’t long before we saw more whales — this time, a family of transient orcas, including Stanley, swimming with mom Sidney and sisters Darcy and Lucky.
Davidson identified Stanley — named after the Stanley Cup by a hockey-loving scientist — from his dorsal fin and the white marking behind it known as the saddle patch. “Once you identify one whale, you can identify the others they’re traveling with,” Davidson explained. (But in case she’s stumped, she carries a thick whale-identification guide, put together by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.)
Davidson said the four were in “traveling” mode, able to move as far as 100 miles a day. They came up for air every few minutes, emerging from the water to gasps of delight from the binocular-wielding group of sightseers in my boat.
After perhaps 40 minutes of this game, captain John Boyd told us it was time for us to say goodbye.
After a final wave to Stanley and family, I settled in for the boat ride back to Friday Harbor, eagerly anticipating my next island adventure.