Amelia Earhart is okay.
She’s been seen swimming with fellow gray whales recently and she appears healthy.
“Amelia got hit by a small boat last spring, but she’s back and she’s fine,” Bonnie Gretz told a group of two dozen Island Transit bus passengers on April 14 during a guided tour.
Moving along State Highway 525 with Tito Guttierrez at the wheel, passengers learned about many marine mammals on their way to the Welcome the Whales Parade and Festival in Langley.
Gretz, a volunteer with the Langley Whale Center, relayed many facts about a group of a dozen gray whales that spends two months grazing on ghost shrimp around North Puget Sound waters.
All the passengers were picked-up in Oak Harbor; almost half of them were friends who came in a group.
Guided bus tours are a new program of Island Transit. There’s no charge. Riders must sign up for the tours in advance and at least six are needed for each tour. They’re proving so popular, some are fully booked.
“This is just a great idea,” tour participant Cherri Forrest said after getting off the bus in Langley. “Really. Island Transit, whales, festival. Yes, yes, yes.”
The tours serve a dual purpose — reducing the number of cars on the road and pitching the convenience of taking the bus in hopes of wrangling new riders.
“We wanted to get more people on board and so this is one way to do it,” said Maribeth Crandell, who came up with the guided tour idea.
Crandell, mobility specialist with Island Transit, acted as tour guide and Gretz the local expert. Each tour features a speaker well-versed on the tour’s theme. For example, historic preservation specialist Harrison Goodall will be aboard the May 18 Historic Barn Tour (it’s fully booked).
On the way to Langley, Gretz explained how the local groups of grays, called the Sounders, are tracked. Each whale has specific markings. Cascadia Research Collective scientists have given them numbers; over the years, some have been given names, such as Patch, Amelia Earhart and Shackleton.
“This year, we’ve spotted nine or 10 grays in the group,” Gretz said as she unrolled a large poster showing different whale species. “We used to think only the ones we know show up, but we’re starting to see others.
“There’s about 20,000 gray whales that migrate every spring from Baja north to the Bering Sea for summer feeding.”
Saturday’s Route 1 bus continued to pick up passengers. Some appeared rather surprised to find themselves in the middle of a lecture on eschrichtius robutus, or gray whales.
Additionally, seats were unusually full.
Crandell explained about the tour to each new rider coming aboard.
The tours use buses and drivers on their normally scheduled routes, explained Mike Nortier, Island Transit executive director.
“In other words, the transportation or bus service for the tour is not unique or a one-time event,” he said. “It’s an effort to create positive experiences for new or infrequent riders. We hope the experience and word-of-mouth advertising will encourage additional riders to use our services and leave the driving to us.”
Shirley Racette was among a group of nine friends from the Church of the Nazarene in Oak Harbor.
Riding the bus or going to events on South Whidbey is not something they normally do, she said. But they jumped on the offer when they found out it’s free and it included guides.
“The talk was very good, so it’s an informative tour,” Racette said. “We’ve never been to the whale festival and we probably wouldn’t drive here.”
The first themed tour explored historic sites on Camano Island. Future trips include a Walk in the Woods tour exploring hiking trails, a Central Whidbey History Tour and a tour taking in Coupeville and Bayview Farmers Markets.
Possible future tours may revolve around Halloween ghosts, photography or wineries.
On the return trip, Crandell reviewed bus basics, such as how to read a schedule, why she uses a flashlight at bus stops at night and how to combine riding a bicycle with bus commuting.
She also explained Island Transit’s van pools used by commuters, how paratransit works and that the system is partnering with some nonprofit organizations and social service agencies to help clients get around.
“Do any of you know other bus systems that don’t charge?” she asked her whale riders. No response.
“We’re one of only two systems that are ‘free,’ but we call it prepaid,” Crandell said. “It’s paid by sales tax and we also get grants.”
Johana Suarez, a student at Skagit Valley College, called the tour “perfect.”
“It was fun,” she said, holding a small stuffed orca she bought at the Langley Whale Center. “I found out about it when Maribeth came to our school.”