Whale watching with Jeremy

Passengers on an Island Adventures whale watching trip, above, capture orcas on film - Rick Levin
Passengers on an Island Adventures whale watching trip, above, capture orcas on film
— image credit: Rick Levin

Call him Jeremy (Pinson).

For the last six years, Pinson has been a captain and tour guide for Island Adventures, navigating the 65-by-23-foot fiberglass Island Explorer II with its three engines and 1,600 in horsepower through the waters surrounding the San Juans in search of orcas. Often the converted fishing boat is loaded to capacity with 102 camera-snapping sightseers — folks from India, Denmark, Germany as well as native Washingtonians hoping to experience the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of witnessing a 6-ton killer whale breach at 30 yards.

From the moment he leaves port, Pinson is on the radio and telephone, engaged with a massive and far-reaching communication network of fishing boats, tugs, tankers, ferries and other tour vessels in a search for whales.

“It’s a cooperative effort,” he says, monitoring an array of squawking radios. The phone rings often, bringing hints and rumors of orca sightings.

This is no Disneyland ride; it can take hours to fix the proximate location of the pods — if one finds them at all — and Pinson might cruise as far north as Orcas Island only to find the whales have been spotted south of Whidbey Island.

“They’re always traveling,” Pinson said. Over the years, he’s come to know the whales’ habits, the way they move, their speed and trajectory. Once, he sighted a whale six miles away — just a spray of white plume like a sneeze on the distant horizon — though with the naked eye sighting distance is typically limited to “a couple hundred yards,” he said.

What you look for when you look for an orca whale is the dorsal fin, which can grow to a height of 6 feet in adult males. It helps to have binoculars, though after a while every wave crest and distant speck of a boat can come to resemble a fin through a magnified lens bobbing to the rhythm of the boat.

When, after hours of searching and telephoning and radioing and peering through binoculars, Pinson finally locates a pod of whales, the excitement among the passengers is palpable.

Cameras are uncapped and video cameras turned on, and little kids get hefted onto Dad’s shoulders. Way off in the distance, someone sees a dorsal fin.

Here is where Pinson puts “best practices” into action — the standards used by most professional whale-watchers to minimize the impact of boat traffic on the orcas themselves. First, Pinson slows the boat, making sure not to get in between the onrushing pods and the shoreline. Then, when he gets to where he wants to be, he shuts off the engines, though the orcas are still a long way off. An anxious passenger asks how close he’s going to get.

“It’s up to the whales,” Pinson said, a response which exemplifies the “best practices” philosophy.

Today, much to the amazement of those aboard the Island Explorer II, the whales have decided to get stunningly close, with a pair of orcas swimming right up to and under the stern. Other whales take to the air, smacking the water with a massive splash. Shutters click and people point, yelling with undisguised glee.

Island Adventures owner/operator Shane Aggergaard, who has spent “over 1,000 days with the whales,” says such voluntary practices as shutting off engines and maintaining adequate distances are in the best interest of the whales, though the benefit for watchers is also manifested in that orcas have grown familiar with the predictable movements of the boats.

“When we stop, we’re basically a log drifting in the water,” he says. “We don’t get close to the whales. They get close to us.”

Pinson stays with the whales for about 45 minutes, following the pod slowly and only when the last of the orcas has passed the boat. Nonetheless, people get an eyeful, with at least 30 different sightings occurring in that brief span of time. And when he finally decides to head back to port in Anacortes, Pinson finds, much to everone’s delight, that the whales are travelling on a route parallel with the boat.

He stops once again to let them pass.

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