How to Spot Gray Whales “Going Wild” On Their Spring Break Near Whidbey Island


Over the gentle waves of the Puget Sound, April showers bring . . . . gray whales! And: vessels of whale-watching enthusiasts ready to scramble over the side of a boat—even pushing their own children aside—just to snap a photo of one of the most homely creatures I’ve been blessed to see.

On a rare, non-rainy Tuesday in Edmonds, Washington, Alex, Nate, and I boarded the Chilkat Express to try our hand at spotting a gray whale. Even though it was spring break in this area, the boat was not filled to capacity. Whale watching is apparently not very high on the bucket list for college students who need to “let loose” for a little while. However, the Pacific Northwest IS the perfect spot for gray whales to just go wild during the spring and summer months. By “go wild,” I mean they eat in VERY shallow waters, which I suppose would be dangerous for such a large creature. Here’s to living on the edge. You go, whales!

To get to the whales, we rode in a comfortable catamaran with tinted windows, cushy seats, and a carpeted interior. The smell of a blueberry buckle baking in the galley was also a nice touch. The last whale watching tour we took in Nova Scotia a few years ago was a wild, stomach-churning jaunt on a lobster boat (or was it a crab boat? One walks sideways, right?). We took plenty of great pictures of pilot whales, but some of the other tourists left with the added bonus of “souvenir bags” filled with the memories of their lunch. The Chilkat Express tour was not that kind of whale watching tour.

As we headed up Whidbey Island and the Saratoga passage, Bart, a wildlife photographer who was also one of our guides for the day, gave us tips for spotting whales. This whale watching tour would not use sonar. Instead, the crewmembers depended on their eyesight to spot the whales each day. They also depended on us to find these whales. He told us to look for:

1) Exhalation blows of 10-15 feet in the air.

2) Rocks with barnacles growing on them—because they’re not really rocks. They’re not rock lobsters, either.   They’re the backs of the gray whales.


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, the humps are called “knuckles” and the gray whales are the only species in the Eschrichtiidae family. They are baleen whales, using their filter system, to feed on the bottom of the ocean.

I decided I’d look for these “rocks” in the swells of the waves, and I–along with several other children on the boat)–kept thinking we saw whales.

Me: “Ooh! Ooh! Nate! I think I see one! I. . .I think I see it.”

Excited Children: “We see it too! We see it!”

(Excited passengers and Bart scramble to my side of the boat.)

Nate: “No—that’s a swell from the Mukilteo Ferry.”

Man in front of me: “Yeah—that’s just a swell.”

Me: “Sorry, everyone.”

Except I–and a few other children, just to be fair–spotted these whale-swells a few more times before Bart and the captain told us the whales were WAY out near the shore.


Bart mentioned that about ten of these whales come here every year from Baja, Mexico to snack on ghost or sand shrimp.

According to the Marine Mammal Commission’s 2012 report to Congress, gray whales are on the endangered species list, but there are several different populations of gray whales. The western North Pacific gray whales only have about 130 members and are on the endangered species list. In the eastern portion of the North Pacific, the population was removed from the endangered species list in 1994 due to conservation efforts (120-122). The NOAA and Marine Mammal Commission report also mention that gray whales have been spotted near California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Russia, Korea, Japan, and Mexico.

In Mexico, according to Bart, these whales mate and calf, which is extremely taxing work. They don’t have any time to eat. So, they come here to the shallow waters and fill up.

People were now seeing the whales left and right. I couldn’t see much of anything. I kept thinking that the boat would get closer, but it couldn’t because the whales were in such shallow water. Also, according to the NOAA website, whales sometimes collide with boats, so we were most likely keeping a respectful distance as well.

Then, they started frolicking—sort of—for a gray whale. I could see a spout of water, a quick roll of the hump, or even a smack of a tail. I tried so hard to get those pictures—only to flip through the images moments later and discover:

–a fuzzy tail-shaped dot “framed” by someone’s elbow.

–someone’s pompom-topped cap—with maybe a blurry whale-like object in the background.

The gusty wind, smacking me in the face, drove me back inside the cushy cabin where I tried to spot some more “rocks.” That’s when I heard “oohing” and “awing” from the people outside and realized I’d missed some kind of slow moving, rolling gray whale show. I figured that if I had seen it, I probably wouldn’t have been able to photograph it, so I settled in for a relaxing ride. I was thankful to have just been able to witness the rolling humps and water spouts I had seen with my own eyes earlier.

Nate and Alex eventually returned with wide grins on their faces.

“Did you get any pictures?” I asked.

“What do you think of these?” Nate asked, showing me the pictures he and Alex had just taken.

“I think I’ll use them on my blog—with your permission of course,” I said.

When we got off the boat, the next group of tourists anxiously waited to board.

“Did you see any whales?” they asked.

“Yes,” we replied.

“Was it breathtaking?” Someone asked.

I paused too long to be able to answer in time. Someone else answered for me, but I probably would have said:

“It was like watching bumpy rocks with slow-moving, flapping fins, suddenly spout water.  But I mean that in a really, really good way. Seriously. I’d do it again!”


Your Turn:  Have you ever been whale or bird or animal watching?  Was it all that you hoped it to be?  Discuss and share!

2 thoughts on “How to Spot Gray Whales “Going Wild” On Their Spring Break Near Whidbey Island

  1. Great blog. To answer your question: I was walking along the shoreline at Venice Beach in California last fall and just watching out towards the water. A pod of dolphins was swimming along the line where the waves were breaking and pelicans dipped at the swells. And then, out beyond the dolphins, a grey whale breached in a sudden and spectacular manner. My jaw dropped and I swiveled around to share the “DID YOU SEE THAT!” moment with anyone around me. But it became evident that no one was watching the ocean. Cellphones: Yes. Each other: Yes. But looking out at the the display the pacific was offering that day: No.


    1. Wow! Dolphins, pelicans, AND a gray whale? How lucky!!! What a shame that no one else noticed, though. It goes to show that we should really take note of what’s going on around us. We want so desperately to “capture” everything, but we miss so much. Thanks, Jay!


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