San Juan Island: Whales to the North

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“Go to San Juan,” she said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to,” she said. (Statement should have merit given she’s been all over the world). “Yes, whatever,” we thought. “You’re biased. A local. Subjective.” We. Were. Wrong. Suffice it to say, we arrived on San Juan Island somewhat skeptical of the idyllic reviews we’d heard and read. I mean, we’ve experienced other picturesque islands in our lives. How many more can one heart possibly hold? Well, apparently, at least one.

Our dear friend Shannon recommended San Juan for one main reason: orcas. Specifically, it is the stomping ground of the (gravely endangered) Southern Resident Killer Whale population. In light of our previous mind-blowing encounters with whales, we did as our friend suggested and made a beeline for Lime Kiln Point State Park, where whale researchers spend their days in an old lighthouse observing and gathering data.

Turns out, it is one of the best locations IN THE WORLD to see killer whales from shore. And when I say “see killer whales from shore,” I mean there are times when they are so close you can look them IN THE EYE. Very. Close. To. Shore. 

If you see this flag whales are in the area.

Lime Kiln is obviously a popular destination for island tourists, and has an island trolley bus stop as well as typical amenities like snacks and restrooms. Upon entrance, you will either need to display a Washington State Park Discover Pass or pay the daily fee (I believe $10/day when we visited in July 2018). There is a small Interpretive Center* with whale displays and information, as well as items for sale (the proceeds of which benefit Lime Kiln). Outside the actual lighthouse (now research station), the researchers hang a whiteboard that they update with the latest orca sightings. (It is a sad day when you arrive and you’ve just missed them.)

Sooo, here is what most people do: get to Lime Kiln (either by bike or car), saunter on down to the lighthouse and check the latest sightings, hang around for a bit, and leave. Here is what we did: get to Lime Kiln with our hammocks and a day’s worth of provisions, plant our asses, and stay. For. Ten. Hours.

Ubuthevan Whale Watching Station Zero One.

Our days typically went like this: wake up about 6 and make a beeline for South Beach to see if any killer whales are around. Back into parking spot on gorgeous driftwood covered beach. Open back doors to sea. Groggily wake up while lying in bed with hot coffee searching for whales. *blissful sigh* If spouts spotted, have adrenaline speed wake up process. If not, laze around until whales spotted. When whales pass, make rushed exit to Lime Kiln and eagerly await killer whales that you “just spotted heading this way!” Still wait ten hours. Whales are on whale time, not human time.

Ubuthevan Whale Watching Station Zero Two.

We had sightings most every day, but regardless, enjoyed the scenery and being outdoors in such a stunning environment. The researchers were incredible and befriended us — or maybe took pity on us once they noticed we were spending 10-hour days at the Lighthouse and were well on our way to becoming “dorcas” . They are worth a special shout-out as they get asked the same questions ALL. DAY. LONG. “When are the whales coming?” “Why is the population shrinking?” “How many are left?” I know this because I was this person on my first day.  Also, many of these questions have answers posted in the lighthouse (yes, I was THAT person). So may I suggest using your waiting time to not be like me. Use it to take in the beautiful madrone trees.

Or listen to the water lapping. Or listen to the couples on kayak tours argue about steering. Heck, offer helpful tips if you really want amusement. Go for a walk to the actual lime kiln ruins and learn about how lime was harvested.
Find a bald eagle and observe it fishing.

I also highly recommend going to one of Dr. Bob’s whale talks. You will learn a lot. And honestly, for the Southern Residents’ sake, helping the public become well-educated and passionate about these majestic creatures is something quite needed right now.**

You can also find people (like us!) who are there every day, all day and befriend them. We did this. We met people from all over North America and its environs who were crazy for orcas and quite knowledgeable in their own right. Here is how you can spot the day stayers: large coolers, large camera lenses, hammocks, camp chairs, multiple clothing options for any condition, reading material.

I did take a break one day to explore the island on my bike. While I was gone I missed a group of five whales come by. That’ll teach me. However, we were rewarded on our last day… Late in the afternoon, all of J-Pod (google it; the alphabet name thing is too long to go into here) came by, some swimming within ten feet of shore. I cried. I think everyone there cried. I am crying even writing about it.

San Juan Island seems to have a magic of its own. Of course there’s the whole “island time” thing… but also, tiny foxes and big abundant deer; moonrises over the ocean and sunsets behind lighthouses.

There is a neato lavender farm we didn’t go to, because, orcas (but I did go to its shop in town and it was neato). The town has some great seafood and the island has some fun history. We biked around it one morning (and did not miss any whales. Phew.) The whole thing was about 30 miles. I cried that day for a different reason…hills. (One local woman told us she gets her entertainment watching couples fight biking up hills.)

We also met new friends who now hold a very special place in our heart. They happened to be camping next to us in their white sprinter and a hasty hello turned into a 5 hour deep dive in camp chairs and puffy coats.

I wish we had a better picture of Jay and Lara (really love these two humans) — their awesome van will have to do. “Peace Love and Perseverance.”

You just never know what magic the road will turn up… Once again, we were glad we listened to the advice of a friend. Glad we had space in our hearts for this particular island. And surprised none at all by killer whales being more astounding in real life than we’d imagined. Addictive really. Hard to imagine another island coming close to San Juan’s romanticism, but I am curious to explore Anne’s Prince Edward… they have whales there?

Appropriately started this post with our first view of the lighthouse and ending it with our last. Sunsets at Lime Kiln Point are no joke…

*The Interpretive Center volunteers usually close up shop when the orcas swim by and post a sign stating “the whales are here.” But, depending on the volunteer, we learned the hard way that not all of them do this (but 98% do). So, if you arrive and the Interpretive Center’s doors are shut – run down to the water!

**Though I did not write about it here, the summer of 2018 was particularly heartbreaking for the Southern Resident Killer Whales. We were on the island as Scarlet (J50) was deteriorating rapidly in her health, as well as when Tahlequah (J35) had her stillborn calf and carried it for the first several of her 17 days. There was much grief mixed with the wonderment of learning about these complex, advanced mammalian communities. If you want to get involved in their plight or further educate yourself, you can check out the Center for Whale Research; these magnificent beings can use our help.

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