I PULL HARD on the paddle, launching the kayak into the cold, clear Salish Sea—the coastal waterways surrounding southern Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, and the San Juan Islands. Heading for open water, I inhale the salt air off San Juan Island State Park. Its sandy, protected beach serves as a popular launch site for kayakers.
Jason Gunter, co-owner of Discovery Sea Kayaks (discoveryseakayak.com), leads the way in his bright red kayak. My friend Chris Olsen and I follow, searching for killer whales and other creatures of this amazing seascape.
The sky is the color of pewter, the water calm as glass, providing perfect conditions for exploration. The Salish Sea measures some 6,500 square miles, comprising the Georgia Strait, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound, the second- largest estuary in the United States with one of the richest concentrations of marine life in the world. Marine biologist Bert Webber of Bellingham coined the term Salish Sea in 1988 to emphasize its transnational nature.
Today we plan to explore a small corner of it: the waters off San Juan Island, an area frequented by killer whales, salmon, and an amazing diversity of bird life. The San Juan Islands consist of a chain of 172 islands lying between Canada’s Vancouver Island and the Washington and British Columbia mainland. They offer almost endless opportunities for kayaking, bird-watching, fishing, and exploring.
We see plenty of birds—grebes, scoters, mergansers, kingfishers, and blue herons. Jason points out a bald eagle in a tree high above the water. Its distinctive white head appears above the branches, scanning the horizon for fish.
We see an eagle every 100 yards, perched on the top limbs of Douglas firs. We cross a kelp bed, the long strands bumping against the bottom of the boat. Salmon feed around the kelp beds, attracting pods of orca whales.
“They like to herd the salmon up against the rocks,” says Jason. “That makes it easier for the whales to eat them. It’s pretty amazing to see.”
Many visitors don’t consider the trip complete without sighting a killer whale, the iconic species of the Salish Sea. And while there are resident orca whales in the area year-round, May through September is an ideal time to spot a dorsal fin: as many as 90 orcas are often in the area at the time.
By the time we head back, I still haven’t seen a telltale black dorsal fin, but I’ll save that for another trip. I have enjoyed a great intro to bird life from the seat of a kayak, probably the best way to experience the biological richness of the Salish Sea. —NICK O’CONNELL
Read More About The Islands
The San Juan Islands are a quintessential getaway for a reason: from orcas and organic farms to mountains and mopeds, they offer a unique adventure for everyone.
About 25 miles north of Seattle, catch the Mukilteo ferry to Whidbey Island for a diverse day trip.
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I PULL HARD on the paddle, launching the kayak into the cold, clear Salish Seathe coastal waterways surrounding southern Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, and the San Juan Islands. Heading for open water, I inhale the salt air off San Juan Island State Park. Its sandy, protected beach serves as a popular launch site for kayakers.
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Waters are so clear I can eye sea stars and huge Dungeness crabs.
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Small-town friendliness mingles with international acclaim in local art scenes.People dont live here by accident.
AN HOUR-LONG BOAT RIDE from Anacortes is all that separates mainland day-trippers from the shores of Friday Harbor, the gateway to San Juan Island.
From Whidbey to Orcas Island, isolation and a bounty of seafood make the area a mecca for esoteric wines, palate-cleansing brews, crisp ciders, and herbal spirits.
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