Sunday, August 31, 2014

Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-... That's all, folks!

I wanted to go out with a bang... but more than that: I didn't want to go out with a whimper.

No whale reports this morning.  By the time I went in to work, there was a report of transients... way north.  As in: it would be, at least, a 5 hour trip; not allowing much time on the transients.  Past experience tells me that is more time than most people care to do.  Joan let me know that there were some on my boat who weren't going to be up for a long, or lumpy, trip.

There was a report of a Minke whale in the vicinity of Hein Bank.  A couple humpbacks too far west, moving further west.  Looks like my last day will be a Minke hunt.

Minke whales need to have better PR - they don't get the respect the Orcas hold.  Maybe it's because they have small dorsal fins on their long bodies?  They don't have BIG dorsal fins on the beefy bodies like the Orcas.  They don't spend much time at the surface.  They are mostly solitary.  They are baleen whales: they eat little sea critters without dramatic "kills" at the surface; they don't play with their food.  There is no Minke named Shamoo and a gazillion stuffed animal look-alikes.

They are the Rodney Dangerfield of the whale world.

Today, they were pretty much the only game in town.  I understand that the guests want to see Orcas.  From my perspective, Minkes are harder to find, and tougher to predict.  And, they are fast.  Think: torpedo.

As it turns out, it was Minke-palooza this afternoon!  We were watching 3 reasonably active Minkes... two that were surfacing together on occasion.  We even saw a couple fine examples of lunge-feeding.  This was one of the better Minke viewings I have seen.  And, did I mention: they are whales?

We had to go to Middle Bank to get this show.  On non-Orca days, the boat crew has to work harder, and (as you might imagine) the guests are generally less enthralled.  So, it wasn't going out with a bang... nor a whimper.  It was a good day on the water.

And our last work day.

OK, there is plenty of work to do before we leave the area (mostly moving out of, and deep cleaning, the boat); repacking everything for the road.

I said my good-byes to most of my first mates and naturalists.  Joan and I went out for a real grown-up, sit-down meal to celebrate the end of our work season.

It's all good.  (Defined by the Urban Dictionary as: nothing is bad)  Let the next chapter begin.


No, this isn't like a "throwback Thursday"...

Today is our last day of work.  Probably not a surprise to anyone who has even glanced at this blog in the past month or so.  I must have had work on my mind when I went to bed last night... I woke up in the middle of the night, from a dream where I was working on a VCNA.

"What's that?" you ask.  Thanks for asking.  In our former lives, we were in the photography business; a VCNA is a Video Color Negative Analyzer.  Every image we made back in the film days ran through the analyzer: step on the foot pedal, the image would come up on a video screen; make adjustments for density and color, let off the foot pedal, expose the print, the paper would advance (300' rolls of photo paper loaded inside the machine); advance to the next negative and do it all again.  Over and over.  Occasionally, the machine would need to be recalibrated - a tedious task where you'd have to make adjustments to the potentiometers that controlled each color... then make a series of test prints... then, usually have to make a finer adjustment, and do it all over again.

It gives me cold sweats just thinking about it.  Clients never saw that part of our business.  It was the work behind the scenes that had to happen every day in order for clients to get their images.  Most businesses have work like this that has to be done in order to turn out their finished product or service.

It is like that in the whale watch business, too.  There is a lot of work that gets done before guests pick up their boarding passes.  Like most businesses, if the phone doesn't ring, nothing else happens.  Joan and the rest of the desk staff help guests plan their trips here.  You don't just casually drive by the San Juan Islands - you have to take the Washington State Ferry (an hour and 10 minute ride) or fly in by seaplane or "on wheels" (into the airport), unless you have your own boat.  We set our departure times around the ferry schedules.  It takes some effort to get here.

Boat crews arrive an hour or more before departure time - all the safety checks, engine prep, cleaning, and planning needs to be done before the guests are brought down the docks to our boats.  Planning?  I've often compared getting to the whales (IF there are whales) to playing chess.  We look at weather, check the hourly tide/current predictions.  If we are fortunate to have a whale report (from boat(s) who are already on the scene), we learn the direction and speed the whales are moving.  The whales don't have a schedule... they could be milling around one minute, then take off at speed the next... then change direction... then split up and go different directions.

Many people think the whales are in one spot, frolicking around, waiting for people to come look at them... "Oh, look!  Here come the boats!  You do a tail-lob, I'll do a spy-hop.  Let's wait 'till they get closer, then we'll swim up next to the boats and wave at them with our pectoral fins."

Yeah, it isn't anything like that.  These magnificent animals are wild; they are on a constant hunt for food.  They can (and do) swim 70 to 100 miles per day in that search.  They are very family oriented - as much, or more so, than human families.  They go where they decide to go, based on where their food is.  It is never the same thing two days in a row.

There is plenty of planning for the boat crews, and that "plan" is always in flux.  We all work hard to make sure the guest has a good experience... not just "There's the whales - look at 'em."  Our naturalists are degreed biologists - they explain the behavior the whales are exhibiting, identify what whales we are viewing, and answer questions the guests may have... like: "How do whales sleep?"... "When are they going to breach?"... "How do you know which one is which?"... "If they are residents, where do they live?"... "What time do they eat?" (Really??  Did you read the previous paragraph?)... "Are there transmitters on the whales, telling you where they are?"... "Why do they do that?" (tail-lob)... "Why do they do that?" (spy-hop)...

Our naturalists are patient, and passionate about their work.

The boat captains do more than just drive the boat.  Our foremost concern is the safety of those on our boats.  This may seem like a "pleasure cruise," but these waters can be tough.  There is a reason we train crew for all kinds of situations.  When we get in the vicinity of the whales, we have to know and abide by all the federal and state laws.  We position our boats so guests have the best view... often working around and with other boats doing the same.  We consider the direction of light so guests can get the best photographs.  We are always on a schedule, knowing that some guests have to meet flight and ferry departure times.  We may have another trip scheduled after this one.  We have to deal with private boaters who don't "play by the rules."  On days where the whales aren't around, we go in search of them, and still do our best to give the guests a good wildlife experience.  We are always looking out for "viewing opportunities."  And dodging logs and other debris in the water.  Wind, waves, fog, rain, and whatever else Mother Nature tosses our way.  Knowing that people are expecting "a three hour tour" to take exactly three hours... when the whales are an hour an 40 miles away from us... and we still have to come back that same distance after seeing them.  After a long day on the water, we come back into the harbor with the setting sun in our eyes, making sure we dodge the crab pots that some boaters put in the fairways just outside the harbor. 

Yesterday after work, while walking back to our boat, a woman noticed the logo on my shirt and cap... "Do you work for a whale watch company?"

"Yes, ma'am."  (I was expecting the "Where are the whales?" question that we get endlessly from private boaters.)

She said, "That must be a great job."

Contemplating one last day, I said, "Yes, it is."

Then came the usual questions.  My feet were tired (I had been standing at the helm most of the trip); I had my pack full of stuff on my back.  The sun finally squeeked out, and I was wearing a turtleneck under my polo... I could feel the sweat building.  My bladder was telling me it was time to go.

"No, the whales aren't just in one place... no, we don't have 'a route' that we travel... yes, they are wild animals and they do keep moving all the time..."

It is a very interesting job.  Viewing the whales never gets old; but, I don't get a lot of time to sit back and enjoy the view - I am constantly evaluating the distance, watching for other boats, positioning our viewing area on the boat for the guests, keeping track of time, checking the engine gauges, coordinating on the radio with other boats, checking on the guests to make sure they are doing fine, deciding what route to take back to Friday Harbor (considering current, weather, timing, and viewing opportunities).  I appreciate the challenge.

On this last day, I am ready to not be on a schedule.  Well, after today.  I would like to end the season with some great viewing, but no matter how it plays out, it has been an outstanding season for whale watching opportunities.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

One day to go...

Next to the last day today - it was chilly... I had to wear my flannel-lined pants.  Overcast and rain this morning, but it dried up before my trip today.  Still, I took my raingear - if I take it, it won't rain.  Well, that's what I'm going with.

I had a good whale report before boarding the guests.  Oh, there was some north/south stuff on their part, but I knew we could get to them.  I expected a bunch of boats to be on the whales today, but on my way down San Juan Channel, I got a report of transients by the Chain Islets (near Discovery Island, off Vancouver Island) - that would take care of the Victoria boats (cutting the number by half).

When we got to the whales, it was some of J and K Pod - they were spread out over several miles.  We were one of two boats on a group of three, and the other boat didn't stay for long.  There were a couple private boats that came and went, but we had these whales mostly to ourselves...

There was plenty of surface activity.  Another day with nearly calm water... my back is still sore from the other day, when it wasn't so calm.  Nice weather, cooperative whales.

One more day to go.  What are the odds...??


Friday, August 29, 2014

Easy day and friends from home...

It was a delightfully easy day on the whale watch boat today.  The resident Orcas were reasonably close.  The weather looked iffy: solid overcast, but the rain came this morning, not during our chartered trip.  And the sea conditions were... wonderful!  I had a report that conditions were "a one foot roll"... when we got to where the whales were, it was nearly calm.  Quite a change from yesterday.

An extended family group chartered the boat today; their goal: "We want to see Orcas!"

It was a pleasure to tell them that we had good reports - they were excited!

On the scene, we had some fine viewing of K-Pod...

Coming back in from the whales, we saw a bunch more wildlife: first, a Minke whale.  Then, a couple Dahl's Porpoise (only the second time I've seen them this season).  The Stellar Sea Lions were in fine form...

A short run from Whale Rocks, and we saw a bald eagle.  VERY nice viewing today!

And the water was SO pleasant...

We fueled the boat and got her cleaned and put away.  When I walked up to the office... my buddy Herb was standing there!  I haven't seen Herb and Wilma since we left Texas.  They were able to get a slip for tonight (not easy to come by on a holiday weekend); I walked down to the dock to catch a line for them while they moved off the breakwater dock.

When Joan got off work, we walked back to Willie's Tug (Herb and Wilma's new Ranger Tug) for a tour and some catching up...

Herb and Joan sitting on one of their cool fold-out seats in the cockpit...

A nice way to cap off the day!

Going out with a splash...

Well, it may be that my shoes are sloshing.

Three work days left (a holiday weekend).  I think Mother Nature may be trying to tell me something.  It has been a glorious summer, weather-wise and for whale watching.  The weather weasels can give us a semi-sometimes-accurate forecast for the weather conditions, but the whales are totally unpredictable.  As it turned out yesterday, the unpredictable whales led me to make the decision to head north... and though we had some snotty wave conditions, it sounds like it was worse to the south.

The forecast for the next 3 days: cooler with a 30-40% chance of rain.  After we leave, it warms up and the sun comes back.

The forecast I'd like to see: 99% chance of whales, with a strong likelihood of breaches and spy-hops. ;-)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Rockin' and a rollin'...

Good whale reports today: residents to the south, transients to the north.  Reports on the sea conditions weren't so favorable: 2 to 3 foot and building.

Decisions... go south, where the conditions are getting lumpier, but the whales are closer.  OR, go north, where the conditions aren't as bad, but you have to go further.  I could almost be a politician - I put off a decision until I was heading out of the harbor.

The whales to the south were moving north... the whales to the north were moving south.  Conditions to the south were getting lumpier still, but the tide would be changing soon.  I assumed the flood tide would move the southern whales faster north.  Yeah, we're going north.

Like that proverbial chess game, except each group of whales was playing checkers or Parcheesi... but they sure as heck weren't being predictable.  The southern group turned back south on the flood tide.  Really??  The transients to the north split up - half went north and half went south.  The group of transients going south were going to be our best bet.  Conditions where we would find them were reported to be 2 foot waves and building.  I heard boats further south reporting even snottier conditions... and that's what would be heading our way.

I checked on the guests, let them know that the conditions would be "sporting"... that's my euphemism for "hope you can all keep your lunch down."  They seemed excited.  Riiiiiiight!

As we neared the whales, I could see the waves ahead of us building... "2 foot," my ass... definite 3's and more.  The flybridge on this boat puts high over the water... think about what a metronome looks like: the boat is the bottom of that, and I am sitting on the part that swings back and forth.

A cheer from the group on the boat rang out as the whales surfaced in a good group formation.  I almost let out a cheer, because they were moving almost into the waves... it is VERY uncomfortable to be in rough conditions when the waves are on the beam.  3 foot built to 4... 4 foot built to 5.  I asked the first mate to let me know how the guests were doing: "They're having fun!  Wow, it sure isn't fun up here!"

I braced for the first time we came down a steep wave and buried the bow... up to the bow rail!  Another cheer from the group on the boat!  Damn, these people are champs!  Another group surfacing with the whales, and another bow stuff - I was keeping just enough forward speed to maintain steerage so we didn't broach between the waves.  I asked the first mate if we were taking any water over the coaming... "Yes, but it is going out as fast as it comes in - and they're still having fun and enjoying the whales."  (The boat has large scuppers across the stern.)

And then, almost as fast as it built, the waves started to diminish!  Three foot waves, normally something I try to avoid with this boat, were easily manageable.  Another couple minutes and it was down to 2 foot... this was almost easy (by comparison).

And there were whales.  And happy guests.

No, I don't have any photos.  I had one hand on the wheel and the other on the shifter and throttle.  Both feet widely braced.  In the past, I have described conditions like that as: being strapped to a mechanical bull for 3 hours.  That's not really accurate... there is no "strap" - you have to hold on tight!

We stayed with the whales for almost an hour.  Then, we ran through Mosquito Pass, and by Roche Harbor.  There was a HUGE yacht anchored out... with a helicopter on the aft deck.  If we are playing "Who Has The Biggest Yacht?" game, this guy wins.  From my high vantage point on the flybridge, I still had to look up to see the lowest portholes in their hull.  Yeah, HUGE.

We looked at other wildlife on the way back to Friday Harbor.  I came down from the helm and got a round of applause.  One guy asked me, "When do you decide to call it quits with the waves and weather?"

"I go by what the guests can handle.  I've turned around to find calmer conditions in waves that weren't as rough as today.  You folks are great!"

Everyone was smiling.  Yep, another good (but lumpy) day on the water.

First day of school...

No, I'm not going back to school.  As a proud graduate of the 4th grade (3 of the toughest years I ever spent, by the way), I think I reached my educational potential a long time ago.  ;-)

Today is the first day of school in Friday Harbor.  Not a big deal, but it does mark the local feeling that another summer season is done.  Don't tell that to our desk staff (including the Blonde) as they continue to fill seats on boats.  This has been a very busy season in Friday Harbor.

I walked uptown for a breakfast sandwich this morning, and didn't see much difference in the number of people on the streets.  School starting does slow down family travel, but there are a lot of us who prefer to travel during the "shoulder seasons".