Sunday, August 31, 2014


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.

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