Whale Watching From Edmonds, Everett and Bellingham
Gray Whale Breaching Photo Courtesy of Merrill Gosho, NOAA
Who says you must travel to the San Juan Islands to meet and greet our gray-whale travelers on their seasonal spring glide through the waters of Puget Sound? With only a few free hours in the morning or afternoon, you can encounter these friendly frolickers near your own home town as they make their way from Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska in March through early May. You just have to know whose boat to hop aboard, departing from Edmonds, Everett or Bellingham.
The gray-whale welcome wagon is also huge in Seattle’s surrounding islands, with whale-watch associations, parades, festivals, alerts and even a giant brass bell ringing out the latest whale sightings.
Local cruise captains know just how to find our seasonal 40-ton graybies, with casual and affordable boat rides you can take with friends and family in just three or four hours. Here’s some info on our annual mammal-migrators, how to get sea-bound from ”mainland” city harbors, and what to expect on Whidbey Island during their whale-of-a-festival in April.
Know Your Gray Sounders
Out of thousands of grays that journey up to 14,000 miles in the Pacific every spring, just 8 to 10 of them split off from the group and cruise through our local Puget Sound waters. Returning year after year, each whale is identified by its unique markings and scars, including Patch (aka #49), who was first sighted by Cascadia Research Collective in 1991 and is now accompanied by “Little Patch.” Sounders #56 and #531 have infamous “tough-guy” reputations after surviving a rare orca attack near Gedney Island in 2017.
These seasonal 40-ton, 50-foot-long grays (known as Sounders) are bottom-feeders who love to munch on translucent “ghost shrimp” – which happen to live in the mud flats around south Whidbey Island. It’s like the sea-creature version of Spring Break; a huge party zone with all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets. Instead of teeth, the grays use baleen plates to shovel in their food with one big gobble.
The Pacific Whale Watch Association makes it easy to find reputable boat operators, with 32 partner marine businesses and dedicated whale-watching operators departing from 19 ports in Washington and British Columbia. They all embrace ecotourism, research and responsible wildlife tourism – but here are a few local favorites who will whisk you away to meet our grays swimming, playing, feeding, blowing and breeching in the Puget Sound before completing their journey north.
All Season Charters: Edmonds Marina
The Jablinske family, owners of All Season Charters, is well known for operating Seattle-favorite fishing charters out of the Port of Edmonds Marina for more than 40 years – but they also put their collective expertise to work tracking the gray whales every spring. Captain Mike, a rumored whale-whisperer, can tell you plenty of tall-tales and fish-fantasies from literally growing up on the waters of Puget Sound. He knows each of our devoted gray-whale travelers by name, and can spot their movements from afar.
Outside of whale-watching season, All Season Charters also operates salmon and halibut charters, private boat parties, and even customized aqua outings to events such as Seattle Seahawks games. The Annie A vessel can accommodate up to 25 people.
Island Adventures: Everett
Operating one of the Puget Sound’s larger whale-watching fleets from several ports, Island Adventures launches its most popular gray-whale “Sounder” tours from the Port of Everett Marina. Aboard the Island Explorer 3, you’ll enjoy a three-hour narrated tour around the waters of Everett, Gedney Island and Whidbey Island, keeping a keen eye out for 15-foot blows, flukes, spyhops and breeches. There’s an onboard café selling snacks such as Ivar’s clam chowder, Nathan’s hotdogs and Captain’s chili. You can follow daily gray-whale sightings on the Island Adventures website.
Outer Island Excursions: Bellingham
The gang at Outer Islands Excursions is indeed the same ones you see departing from marinas in the San Juan Islands, but you don’t have to make that jaunt to get the same whale-watching experience. They let you hop aboard in Bellingham, saving the extra drive time, ferry lines and expenses of getting over to Orcas or Lopez Islands. A big plus of going with this crew is the ability to customize your trip, even creating a combination fishing and whale-watching excursion, or stopping for kayaking, crabbing, lighthouse tours or wildlife viewing. When you spot the gray whales, you can listen to them with hydrophones.
Welcome the Whales Festival: Whidbey Island
Though Whidbey Island does have resident orca pods, it’s the majestic grays that take center stage in April at the annual Welcome the Whales Festival. The 2018 celebration takes place on April 14 and 15, with lectures, art, whale excursions and a colorful quirky parade on Saturday at 1 p.m. During the festival and throughout the spring months, listen for the clanging of a brass bell at Seawall Park. That means someone has spotted a Sounder Gray, so just run toward the water to get an eyeful of these magnificent creatures.