New whale watching business offers daily trips from Semiahmoo

Published on Thu, May 7, 2009
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By Jack Kintner

Some people think they’re a curse on whale-watching excursions. Having been skunked too often, they conclude that there’s some kind of anti-whale karma they put out that guarantees vistas of smooth seas unbroken by a spout or a towering dorsal fin.

These are exactly the kinds customers that Orcas Island’s Beau Brandow wants to meet. Owner and operator of Outer Island Expeditions, Brandow has begun offering daily tours out of the Semiahmoo Resort.

His knack for finding the beasts and a lot of other interesting wildlife at sea is nothing short of amazing. It comes from many years studying the creatures and their habits while working on various small islands in the San Juans for the Washington State Parks system, plus undergraduate study at Whitman College.

Since he knows their habits and where and what they like to eat, he knows where to find them if they’re to be found at all. It also helps a lot that he’s working in waters he knows as well as his own neighborhood, because for the last ten years that’s what they have been for this northwest native.

He spent summers on Alder street in Birch Bay and his parents live on Lummi Island in that small slice of the eastern San Juans that are in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

On one recent trip Brandow gently guided his tour boat, a 32-foot aluminum Maxweld catamaran hull built in Hebo, Oregon, to a point deep inside Boundary Bay.

“Here’s about where they were yesterday,” he said, coasting to a stop as a mature gray whale, 10 feet longer than a standard 40-foot school bus and as heavy as a loaded logging truck, broke the surface with a whoosh and an exhaled spray of steamy wet breath.

“These guys are digging this trench in the mud, roughly from Semiahmoo northwest toward Ladner, to feed on shrimp and other shellfish. They stop to do this here to fuel the rest of the trip,” Brandow said. By this time the circling whales were working their way into deeper water – the trench gets into water so shallow that the whales’ bellies are touching the bottom – which meant they could come higher out of the water to breathe.

The boat was suddenly overwhelmed with a strong smell, a cross between a very busy gym and the world’s biggest dumpster as a gray whale exhaled not 150 yards away.

The gray whale calf that washed ashore near Birch Point last week may have been part of this group, but Brandow said that he’s only ever seen five whales and at press time on Tuesday those five were still around.
The calf died of internal injuries suggesting some kind of trauma, according to researchers who examined the carcass, perhaps from getting rammed by Orcas.

Speaking of which, Brandow said, another captain had just told him that part of the transient Orca pod, aggressive meat eaters known for corralling seals and chomping into ton-and-a-half sea lions, was passing Saltspring Island.

“What do you say?” Brandow asked his customers, “should we go take a look?”

Twenty minutes later the boat was at rest just east of Saltspring Island, and as if on cue the large male named T-10 (for the tenth male identified in the transient pod) and two smaller females passed by, heading north as if on a wire and paying little attention to the boats that gathered to watch them.

“We have to respect these animals,” Brandow said, “and part of that means staying at the legal limit of at least 100 yards or more away.”
He also explained that all the whale watch captains are in touch with each other but the channel is not publicized and the locations, direction and type of whales are described in code.

“We don’t want a lot of company,” he said, “because while the professional tour guides are pretty well self-policed, one person in a power boat can make life miserable for these big creatures.”

Earlier this week the resident Orcas began to show up in the San Juans, and Brandow said that these are usually “a lot more fun to watch.

“They eat fish, not meat, and they’re more active. The transients are on a mission to get to northern waters but the local guys are home, playing in their back yard.”

On the way back to Blaine Brandow pointed out porpoises and Steller sea lions feeding in the prodigious riptide that sets in twice daily near Patos Island, whose lighthouse is being restored. Porpoises sometimes can be coaxed into playing like surfers in the boat’s wake.

Sea lions are huge (over a ton), aggressive and voracious, somewhat closely related to bears, but are themselves the endangered prey of Orcas.

A few harbor seals surfaced closer to the mainland, making it five marine mammal species seen on the trip along with numerous eagles and marine birds.

The passengers got a good look at them in part because of the kind of boat Brandow uses.

Instead of being bundled up and strapped into a seat in a big inflatable, Brandow’s boats have an upper observation deck that’s used when going slowly that’s stable and obstruction-free.

The boats only carry a half-dozen to about 20 passengers so there’s never a problem getting a good viewpoint. Rates for the four-hour ride are $109 for adults, kids under 14 are $89.

They also have group discounts and combined fishing and whale watch cruises. Departure times are daily at 1 p.m. in May and June and then go to twice daily, at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. in July and August. For reservations call 360/376-3711. For more information visit