“Off the port side, at 10 o’clock, we have two gray whales!” The naturalist shouts exuberantly. With breathless anticipation, we scan the water trying to spot the gigantic mottled gray creatures and hopefully even grab a photo or two. It’s spring and the celebrated North Puget Sound gray whales are back! Returning once again to make a pit stop in our waters along their 10,000-mile journey from Mexico to Alaska.

Gray Whale Watching Day Trip

Knowing the gray whales’ time in the Pacific Northwest is fleeting (a few weeks at most), we block out time on our calendar to welcome back these fascinating mammals. After all, it’s not very often a 50-foot-long mammal weighing up to 35 tons (the equivalent of five adult male African elephants) takes up residence in your own backyard.

A gray whale bursts from the waters in a powerful breach.
A gray whale bursts from the waters in a powerful breach.

9:00 am – Cruise and Gray Whale Watching Excursion

It’s early in the morning and as we stride onto the deck of the San Juan Clipper for our Seattle gray whale watching trip, the crew happily welcomes passengers aboard. As the engines roar to life, the vessel slowly eases out of downtown Seattle’s Pier 69. Within moments, the vessel comes to full speed with a full boat eagerly anticipating a day among the majestic creatures.

The San Juan Clipper skims through the waters of the Salish Sea on the Way to Whidbey Island, WA.
The San Juan Clipper skims through the waters of the Salish Sea on the Way to Whidbey Island, WA.

As we near the waters of Possession Sound, our onboard naturalist grabs her pair of trusty binoculars and begins to slowly scan the waters, left to right, for the handful (about 10 – 12) of gray whales who feed off the population of ghost shrimp at the south end of Camano and Whidbey Islands. Our naturalist squints back across the waters, watching for the faintest movement or anything that breaks the surface. The whales are frequently seen close to land, feeding along the shallow, muddy shorelines where those tasty shrimp and worms are found.

A naturalist searches for signs of whales. Photo: Nick Bentley
A naturalist searches for signs of whales. Photo: Nick Bentley

The silence is broken by a loud “whoosh” as the massive, 10-foot-long tail fluke of a gray whale is lifted out of the water. A few seconds later, the powerful tail crashes against the water with a sharp, resounding “flap!” as the mighty beast propels itself deep beneath the water to fill its large mouth with mud from the sea bottom that it then filters through its baleen to feed.

A whale flukes out of the water, propelling itself downward in a deep dive. Photo: Jason Mihok
A whale flukes out of the water, propelling itself downward in a deep dive. Photo: Jason Mihok

Mission accomplished! With two gray sightings under our belts, we navigate onward in search of a third opportunity to see these magnificent mammals. Our naturalist maintains a close eye on the waters, as we continue on to Langley. She pauses to mention that another good way to spot the whales is to look for heart-shaped misty jet of vapor of the whale’s blow when they come to the surface. Using her tips, we continue to search the horizon, cruising past small sailboats and tugboats, until we arrive at the dock at Langley.

With two blowholes, gray whales often produce blow in the shape of a heart. Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist
With two blowholes, gray whales often produce blow in the shape of a heart. Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist

12:00 pm –  Lunch at Useless Bay Coffee Co.

We amble off the San Juan Clipper into the quaint waterfront village of Langley, a place where forest meets the beach and it is not unusual to be greeted by the locals as you walk down the street. Rumbling stomachs make grabbing lunch our first priority ashore. With the delicious smells of freshly baked pastries, garlic, grilled meats drifting on the breeze, there are plenty of options to tempt our taste buds and we have a tough time deciding between French-inspired Northwest eats at Prima Bistro and the popular cafe fare at the Useless Bay Coffee Co.

The popular Useless Bay Co. serves up a slew of excellent eats, ranging from specialty paninis to house-smoked pulled pork tacos. Photo: Nick Bentley
The popular Useless Bay Co. serves up a slew of excellent eats, ranging from specialty paninis to house-smoked pulled pork tacos. Photo: Nick Bentley

We settle on Useless Bay Coffee Co. and grab a seat one of the many tables scattered around the restaurant’s large patio. My travel companion orders up the classic Bacon Cheese Burger, while I, a sucker for anything spicy and that comes with avocado, go with the Southwest Chicken sandwich. Served on fresh baked bread and featuring house-made ingredients (some of which are grown in the cafe’s gardens), both meals are equally delicious.

We can’t leave without sampling the restaurant’s freshly roasted small-batch coffee, which is produced on site using a Probat UG15 drum roaster. To fuel our explorations around town, we each order a cup of cold brew to go.

12:45 pm – Stop in Langley Whale Center

The Langley Whale Center brims with information on our our endangered Southern Resident orcas and the small, unique population of North Puget Sound gray whales. Photo: Nick Bentley
The Langley Whale Center brims with information on our our endangered Southern Resident orcas and the small, unique population of North Puget Sound gray whales. Photo: Nick Bentley

Curious to learn more about the amazing animals we saw on the water, we pass under a massive blue whale jaw bone hanging in front of the entrance of the Langley Whale Center and make our way inside the quaint building. As you enter the space, there is an incredible amount of information on our marine neighbors everywhere you look.

Posters of various whales, maps of gray whale migration routes and lists of recent whale sightings blanket the walls. In addition, display cases featuring specimens such as a harbor porpoise skeleton as well as skulls and pelts from harbor seals, sea lions and sea otters are scattered around the rooms. This allows us to get an up-close view of some of the other marine animals that call the Salish Sea home.

1:15 pm – First & Second Street Boutique Shopping

Formerly a fire station, Callahan's Firehouse Studio & Gallery offers an amazing glass blowing experience. Photo: Nick Bentley
Formerly a fire station, Callahan’s Firehouse Studio & Gallery offers an amazing glass blowing experience. Photo: Nick Bentley

With less than in hour left in town, we decide to make the most of our remaining time and do a quick tour of Langley’s famous galleries and eclectic shops. Meandering down Second Street, a blue-gray fire station adorned with glass bowls and sculptures catches our eye and draws us in. Inside the aptly named Callahan’s Firehouse Studio & Gallery, expert glassblowers put on a show as they twist and turn vibrantly colored orbs of molten glass in a 2100 degree kiln to form an array of tumblers, bowls, pumpkins, wishing stones and various sculptures (if you have a 30 minutes you can even blow your own glass art).

An array of vibrant tumblers and glasses line the selves at Callahan's Firehouse Studio & Gallery. Photo: Nick Bentley
An array of vibrant tumblers and glasses line the shelves at Callahan’s Firehouse Studio & Gallery. Photo: Nick Bentley

From there, we make our way to First Street, and pop into the bright, airy edit, which brims with handmade items produced by 60 artisans on Whidbey, the U.S. and beyond. With an excellent selection of housewares, dishes, knits, candles and totes that have been carefully curated by the shop’s owner for their usefulness and thoughtful design, you are sure to find something to suit your fancy.

Spruce up your space with edit's stylish and useful decor. Photo: Nick Bentley
Spruce up your space with edit’s stylish and useful decor. Photo: Nick Bentley

As the last stop of the day, we follow our noses inside Whidbey Island Natural. The experience is heavenly. We sniff our way through a collection of luxurious and organic soaps, lotions and potions made from fragrant essential oils in the shop’s island workshop. I select a tin of tropical lemon verbena body butter and we are on our way.

Glancing at our watch, we realize it’s time to make the trek back to the San Juan Clipper. We’ve run out of time, but there is so much more to see! We add sampling the award-winning small-case wines at Ott & Murphy to our list of things we must do on a return visit. (Note to self: be sure to also swing by Double Bluff Brewery for a locally crafted brew or two.)

2:30 pm – Cruise Back to Seattle

As we settle in for the ride home, we kick back and relax in our comfy seats. As the sleek Clipper catamaran slices through the waters, bald eagles circle right over our boat and we catch sight of a harbor seal snacking on a dogfish. We slow down as we pass by a navigational maker where sea lions are hauled out of the water, basking in the sun. Later I pull out my camera and browse through my pics, especially the ones of the barnacle-nosed gray whales and reflect on the day’s spectacular adventures.

HOW TO GET THERE:

Clipper Recommends:

  • As you stroll along Second Street, be sure to check out Kalakala Co. Mercantile. The intimate, modern boutique is chock full of prints by local cartoonist Drew Christie, incense, delicate jewelry and more, and even has its own cafe and patio where you can refuel with tasty eats such as pork ramen bowls and fresh shucked oysters.
  • Looking for some quick entertainment? Duck into the Machine SHOP, an amazing arcade featuring walls of vintage pinball machines and two Pacman tables with games at just 25 cents a pop!

 

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