Gulf and San Juan Islands; Friday Harbor

Sep 13, 2017 - National Geographic Quest

Before dawn’s early light the anchor was slowly lifted from off Wallace Island in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, Canada. We traveled slowly to the southeast and the brightening sky of sunrise. Our plan was to search the channels and along the shorelines, not the many islands, trying to find the local killer whales that travel through the area. BC Ferries were actively moving, taking cars, other vehicles, and walk-ons to various towns and villages. This was normal for early morning commuters going to work, or maybe just visiting on a different island. Overhead, numerous seaplanes also carried people from more distant locations at a faster pace.

The morning weather was very pleasant with only a light wind behind us and sunny skies. Finally, along the southwest corner of the main island of San Juan, a large finned male killer whale was spotted. The mate handling the ship slowed her against the oncoming current and fortunately the whale was traveling the same direction we were going. Looking around, there were more animals scattered toward the land, feeding in the current around the pint and near to shore. A number of local whale watching boats enjoyed the beautiful weather and the nearby wildlife. One large male slowly came along the side of the ship and allowed everyone to get excellent views, and of course capture the scene with multiple images on memory cards.

For the late morning with the weather so comfortable, many watched as the ship moved toward the port of entry at Friday Harbor. A number of birds were feeding in the tidal currents between the islands, and a few sea lions were also taking advantage of swimming against the currents. Just before lunch, Captain Graves skillfully docked the ship along the floating outer dock of the busy harbor. Customs and immigration officials set up in the lounge and as we completed the mid-day meal everyone lined up to reenter the US.

One of the main attractions of Friday Harbor village is the excellent whale museum. Perched above the harbor, the building can’t be missed – a mural of a killer whale adorns the end wall. Inside, we could learn about the various kinds of marine mammals that occupy the waters around the San Juan Islands and in Puget Sound. For the rest of the afternoon people explored the streets, galleries, and docks of the village. A small group followed our photo instructor Max, and National Geographic photographer Ken, helping to capture the feeling of this popular destination.

In the late afternoon we were treated to a special presentation by a local marine biologist, Megan Cook. As a friend of the ship’s dive team, Megan had been contacted about coming onboard to give a presentation about her research off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. For about an hour we heard about deep ocean research using high technology remotely operated vehicles to film and sample small parts of the deepest regions of the oceans. The project has an ambitious goal, to make all of the discoveries and data freely available to anyone and everyone through open source internet.

In the evening we remained at the dock so everyone could enjoy the quiet of the sunset and the farewell cocktail party and dinner. As part of the cocktail party we all watched the guest slideshow, appreciating the wide variety of perspectives and images captured by fellow guests. Through the night we would travel the final leg of the voyage to Seattle and be off in various directions home or further travels. But memories would continue to be alive and relived through photos and videos of what has turned out to be a very special expedition.

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About the Author

Bud Lehnhausen


Bud received an undergraduate degree in wildlife biology at Colorado State University. He then immediately went to Alaska where he worked and lived for 30 years. At the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Bud studied wildlife biology and received a master's degree conducting research on four species of alcid seabird nesting on a remote island in the Gulf of Alaska.

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