Business

Whale tours could draw thousands to Oak Harbor

Oak Harbor Marina Harbormaster Chris Sublet speaks with Terica Taylor on a recent tour of the marina. Taylor owns Deception Pass Tours and is considering starting a gray-whale watching business in Oak Harbor.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor Marina Harbormaster Chris Sublet speaks with Terica Taylor on a recent tour of the marina. Taylor owns Deception Pass Tours and is considering starting a gray-whale watching business in Oak Harbor.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Oak Harbor may soon be home to a whale-watching business that could draw about 2,000 tourists per season.

Deception Pass Tours, a water-based scenic tour company that operates out of Cornet Bay, is looking to expand its operations to include seasonal gray-whale watching in Saratoga Passage.

While its home base will remain on North Whidbey, the company wants to operate the seasonal business out of one of several communities. Marinas under consideration include those in Anacortes, Langley and Oak Harbor.

According to company owner Terica Taylor, the new business would run from March 1 to the end of April, the window in which gray whales are typically seen between Whidbey and Camano islands. They expect to run three, two and a half-hour tours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, she said.

So far, things are looking positive for Oak Harbor. Taylor said business leaders have been working hard to see how they might accommodate the company’s needs and that means a lot when considering a new venture.

The marina and its staff have also been supportive. She said Harbormaster Chris Sublet has been especially great, taking time to give her a personal tour of the marina and answer all her questions.

“He is head and tails above the other contacts we’ve worked with,” Taylor said.

Considering the potential boon to the city’s economy, it’s no surprise that so many are doing what they can to encourage Taylor and the company to choose Oak Harbor.

“Two thousand people a season, that’s big,” Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Director Jill Johnson said.

Not only is that a lot of new people visiting, a huge benefit in itself, but whale-watchers are usually the most coveted type of tourist; they are the kind that spend the night, according to Johnson.

While there is no guarantee they won’t stay in neighboring communities, such as Coupeville, those that do stay in Oak Harbor will pay for lodging, buy their meals and spend their money with local merchants.

Because of the city’s urban development, tourists seeking scenic beauty are often referred to locations such as Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve or Deception Pass, Johnson said.

However, the waterfront is the city’s greatest strength and Johnson said the chamber has been desperate to attract businesses that exploit and draw attention to it. And with the recent redevelopment of downtown’s SE Pioneer Way, this is a timely opportunity.

“We’ve needed a chance like this,” Johnson said.

Taylor, who lives in Oak Harbor with her husband and company co-owner, Brett Ginther, said she also is excited about a revitalized SE Pioneer Way and hopes that her company might play a role in its success as whale-watching customers would no doubt drive through downtown on their way to the marina.

Taylor said a choice must be made by Dec. 1. The city is certainly a final contender but the ultimate decision will likely be based on community support.

“We’re from the community,” she said. “We want to be here really bad but it has to be a good business decision.”

 

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