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A SUDDEN SPRAY—then five orcas arc above the water. Their bodies hover midair before curving beneath the waves, a synchronized ballet in black and white. Soon more black dorsal fins knife across the blue expanse. All 26 members of J Pod, year-round residents of the Salish Sea, are here. The community includes three generations—from 100-year-plus matriarch Granny to baby J-49, born just a month earlier.

Some people measure the San Juan archipelago by its number of islands (172). I assess it by its 450 square miles of sapphire waters. For more than a decade, I’ve cruised the bays and straits with my husband on our 21-foot-long cuddy cruiser. But for one sunny weekend, we decide to see the Salish Sea from different perspectives.

Our whale-watching encounter comes with Orcas Island Eclipse Charters (orcas islandwhales.com), a company with an owner-operated vessel. The comfortable boat motors north toward the Fraser River in Canada, where the whales are traveling to feed on salmon. Once we encounter the pod, we refer to Captain Dan Wilk as our “whale whisperer,” since he always seems to know what the orcas will do next. “Look dead ahead,” he advises. Almost immediately, a 25-foot-long orca spyhops, bobbing up out of the water, then backflips—splash—into the sea.

The next day, I get down to sea level on a kayaking trip with Orcas Outdoors (orcasoutdoors.com), based at the island’s Boardwalk on the Water. Led by a naturalist guide, our group ventures between inlets and islets on West Sound. Waters are so clear I can eye sea stars and huge Dungeness crabs, which scuttle away before I can even consider how good they’d taste for dinner.

At one point, I think I see a crab pot floating ahead. Then it winks at me—a harbor seal! It swims within 15 feet of my craft before diving underwater. We paddle past a totem pole, multimillion-dollar estates, and a craggy cedar where a pair of bald eagles have nested and reared their young for more than a decade.

I file the scene away in my mind—another part of my aquatic adventures in the San Juans that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

—Risa Wyatt

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