An hour and a half north of Seattle, in a town called Anacortes, lies a tourist trap that comprises of a gift shop full of whale memorabilia and a dock along which are a slew of large, imposing nautical vessels bobbing innocently in the cold, dead, unforgiving water. At least, that was my first impression of Island Adventures, a whale-watching boat tour company. Forget its success record, its free-future-trip-if-no-sighting guarantee, or its catalogue of all the whales tourists could hope to see. My first impression was of the ticky-tacky snow globes and magnets of the gift shop. Still, I was antsy with anticipation and took to pacing the store until we were allowed to board the boat and set sail.
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It was overcast with an icy breeze, so my brother and I gritted our teeth and squinted our eyes against the bone-chilling wind as we studied the blue-black liquid for a sign of life. For two hours there was nothing but the occasional white-feathered seagull to pique our interest while the cold, damp air slowly leached the life and hope from our bodies. Nothing. There was absolutely, positively, one-hundred per-cent nothing out on the water. We had all but given up hope when the crackle of static filled the air.
KSHHHHHHH- “This is your captain speaking. I just got word of a pod a few miles up. Keep your eyes peeled – once you see boats, you’ll know you’re looking in the right place.”
He was true to his word. Our boat drew up alongside a knot of similar vessels – like vultures to a carcass they had descended on the small pod of whales. Somehow our captain navigated us to the front lines of the group so we were granted the best view.
It was like something out of a National Geographic special, only farther away with a research vessel being the only boat allowed to get within two hundred yards of the spectacle. The whales, black and white orcas, were rolling and breaching and splashing around like dolphins at play while the tourists were tittering and snapping photos and yelling at loved ones to “come see this” as if they weren’t already pressing themselves up against the rails to stare at the boisterous pod.
Then the Canadians came and we cleared out to allow them to enjoy the experience. We can be polite too, eh? And they had come from much farther away, so we were doing the right thing. In the meantime we rounded the tip of the cove where the orcas were playing and settled for watching a seal-covered rock.
Perhaps ten minutes later the captain spoke again, proclaiming the words we so wanted to hear.
KSHHHH- “Ladies and gentlemen, it seems as though the whales are coming to us. Look to the right and you should be able to see them.”
There they were. The entire pod, heading our way.
The captain was forced to turn off the propellers as they neared, for fear of hurting the whales.
Twenty yards. Ten yards. Five. Then they were directly on top of us – rather, we were on top of them as they swam beneath our boat and out towards the open ocean. They were so close that we could see the hairs on their backs ripple in the water.
And then they were gone.
For our patience and our good manners, the forces that be had given us the opportunity of a lifetime. All of the luck of that trip was used up in that instant to bring the whales to us.
And it was so worth it.
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