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It’s been a few days since we returned from our annual boating trip around the Puget Sound and Canadian Gulf Islands on the amazing “Tug Time”, a 29-foot Ranger Tug. Not only did we have extraordinary weather, and Rich expertly plotted the course and itinerary, but we found ourselves in the middle of a super pod of orca whales! It’s taken five years boating in the Northwest to see even one whale. To see dozens within the span of half an hour was unbelievable.

We started our trip very early Saturday morning after spending the night on the boat. We charter from San Juan Sailing in Bellingham, which allows you to attend the safety, orientation, and check-out meetings on Friday afternoon, along with stowing food, clothing, and other stuff on the boat so you’re ready to go in the morning.

Earlier in the day, Rich and I visited our Mount Vernon house to pick produce (piles of zucchini and cucumbers, which we gave to the San Juan Sailing staff), and also collect our boating gear, linen, pillows, and other stuff we’d been accumulating for the trip.

With an hour before the start of the mandatory safety meeting, we visited the Marine Life Center at the Port of Bellingham, where we watched a marine scientist feed a live crab to a hungry Giant Pacific Octopus. The latter quickly wrapped its body and tentacles around the crab, and according to the scientists either drilled a hole in the crab’s shell with its beak and slurped out the meat or crushed the crab, and then picked through the shell for edible morsels.

More pleasant to watch was the delicate shrimp, colorful sea urchins, starfish, and anemone, and humorous crabs. One tiny crab, with long thin legs camouflages itself by “gluing” bits of plant life to his body and legs. It resembled a fragile plant with long stems with puffs of greenery. According to the scientist, once a week, when the tank is refreshed with seawater, the crab re-decorates its body.

It was late at night before we slid into the cozy bed on Tug Time. We had to make an emergency trip to get Haagen Dazs bars… and three boxes of vintage candy. Throughout the trip, we made similar shopping excursions, such as buying giant ice cream cones at the Deer Harbor marine store on Orcas Island.

Because we were able to leave Squalicum Harbor very early in the morning, we were escorted into Bellingham Bay by a herd of seals, who camp out by the fish processing plant at the entrance of the harbor. I barely had time to grab my camera before they dove under the water in search of their breakfast.

Our first stop was the Canadian custom’s dock at Pender Bay, which was over five hours away (32 nautical miles) so there was no dawdling. Thankfully, we only had to wait a few minutes to pull up to the custom’s dock even though several boats were ahead of us. We docked, checked-in, and left within ten minutes. Our records in the Canadian database must say, “Dull, middle-aged, American couple. No need to ask too many questions.”

We had a choice of mooring balls in the Beaumont Marine Park, further into the bay. Using Rich’s new-fangled carabineer/polypropylene contraption, I was able to easily grab the pennant on a ball, tie-off to a cleat, thread in two lines, and then hand the lines to Rich to walk to the bow of the boat. In non-nautical terms, it significantly sped up grabbing and tying off to a mooring ball.

After a quick lunch, we took our dinghy ashore to hike around South Pender Island, and climbed Mount Norman. The highest point on the island at 320 meters (1,050 feet) Mount Norman was worth the effort of putting one foot in front of the other for 4 long, steep miles. The view from the top is spectacular. Check out the pictures!

The next morning, we dilly-dallied before heading to our next destination. As we headed out of Pender Bay, Rich saw a collection of boats in the distance, and on channel 16 (Coast Guard) on the VHF radio, a boater mumbled about seeing an orca whale. I quickly turned to channel 79, which is used by the whale boat operators. Rich meanwhile, gunned Tug Time!

Minutes later, Rich stopped the boat, and I clambered onto the bow with camera in hand. The whales were coming from three different directions, most likely we saw three different pods of whales, converging in what’s known as a super pod. By law you can’t get too close to the whales, and because the whales were coming from several directions, the best plan was to stop, wait, watch, and hope they swim close to your boat.

Ten minutes later, we were rewarded with four or five orcas surfacing within a few hundred feet of Tug Time! You can see how close they got in several of the pictures. Unfortunately, they swim crazy fast, and are above water for only a few seconds.

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