Sponsored Feature

Sponsored Feature: Whale watching opportunities are best ever

May 16, 2019
Puget Sound Express offers many different tour packages.  Among them is the Port Townsend/San Juan Island tour, which is an all-day tour that departs Port Townsend and stops in Friday Harbor.  In addition to whales, passengers get the opportunity to view more Puget Sound sealife as the tour swings past Smith Island.  It's fun for the entire family.

A trip to the zoo can be fun, offering a chance to observe animals that most people otherwise would never get a chance to see in their lifetime.

But nothing beats seeing wildlife roaming free in their element – like whales in Puget Sound. And passengers on Puget Sound Express’s boats are currently enjoying some of the best whale watching experiences in years.

Not only is the area teeming with wildlife – seals, sea lions, porpoises, eagles and more – there also are five different kinds of whales that spend time in local waters.

The Hanke family, which has owned and operated Puget Sound Express for 34 years, is so confident passengers will see whales on their excursions that they guarantee it. On the very rare occasion no whales are seen, they offer a free second voyage.

Noting that whales have been much in the news recently, Sales Director Sarah Hanke said they make an extra effort to educate passengers about whales – their habits, habitat, health and history.

Right now, gray whales are overstaying their usual visit to our inland waters, Sarah said. They’re the ones that migrate annually between Alaska’s Bering Sea and Baja California. Some 26,000 are on their way north for the summer, and a dozen or so typically take a right turn into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then mosey around our area to feed on ghost shrimp in the shallow waters during March and April.

This year, however, they’ve been slow to exit, so whale watchers are still spotting some on the west side of Whidbey Island.

Equally interesting is the comeback of humpback whales, which were all but wiped out by whalers. “It’s one of the best success stories in our region,” Sarah said. “They were hunted to extinction in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but over the last 10 years about 50 of them have started coming in. It’s a very cool phenomenon.”

Also busy right now are the small and fast minke whales, which typically hang out in shallow waters because that’s where their food is. Sarah said schools of fish congregate along the banks, forming into balls when threatened. The minkes open up their mouths and swim right through the balls, gulping down their meal.

Of course, high on everyone’s wish list are the orcas. The Southern Resident killer whales have been much in the news because of their struggles. Down to 73 whales in the three pods, these orcas eat only fish, mostly Chinook salmon, which also have been in decline, further endangering the whales’ future.

More common are the Bigg’s killer whales. Also known as transient killer whales, they are apex predators, so they’re in local waters hunting harbor seals, mostly. That may be helpful to their Southern Resident cousins, because harbor seals eat salmon, too. Sarah said an estimated 250-300 Bigg’s killer whales roam in and out of the area each year.

“There is so much to see here,” Sarah said. “This area is unique because it has all five of these types of whales, and regionally this is a very dense area for wildlife.”

The opportunity to see is enhanced because Puget Sound Express’s boats, including the 60-passenger Chilkat Express and the 120-passenger catararan Saratoga, are the fastest whale watching boats on the West Coast, capable of ranging from Tacoma in the south to Victoria in the north. The jet-powered catamarans do not have propellers, which makes them remarkably quiet underwater, which is better for whales and other marine life. Conveniently sailing out of Edmonds, they offer both half- and full-day tours.

All of the boats feature indoor seating with large viewing windows for every passenger, as well as walk-around decks, two restrooms, snack bars, hydrophones to hear whales “talking” underwater, free use of binoculars and other amenities. To help visitors enjoy a full understanding of the adventure, a naturalist rides along.

The Hankes add a personal touch by offering their famous blueberry buckle, a longtime family recipe, baked daily onboard. Box lunches from The Cheesemonger’s Table also are available, along with hot and cold drinks in the galley.

Puget Sound Express remains a family operation, with boat captains Pete and son Christopher found behind the wheels, while Sarah oversees sales and marketing, Sherri handles office operations, and grandparents Peter and Sue helping out where needed.

This is the beginning of the good weather, a great time for whale watching, and the Hankes have gone all out to ensure it’s an experience you’ll never forget. “Creating memories for other families is our goal,” Sarah said.

Reservations are recommended. To sign up or learn more, visit pugetsoundexpress.com.

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