A killer whale named Onyx breaches in Canadian waters.
Killer whales are some of the most powerful, intelligent, majestic creatures in the sea. They can throw a 2,000lb sea lion 30 feet into the air during a hunt and strategize with an entire pod on the best approach to capture prey. Killer whales, also known as Orcas, are essentially giant black and white super intelligent dolphins and they are the apex predators of the sea.
You might think that the great white shark is the most powerful and deadly, but orcas regularly hunt and eat them. In fact, they’re so smart, they’ll bite right where the great white’s liver is so they can snack on the tastiest, most nutritious part of their prey.
Each year, orcas travel from northern California up to Alaska, and as part of their annual migration, they regularly can be found throughout the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state.
Killer whales are recognized by their dorsal fins.
For this whale watching expedition, we decided to get a taste of local life by staying on an eco-friendly sustainable farm called Pebble Cove Farm on Orcas Island.
To get there, we flew into Seattle, rented a car, and drove about 3 hours to catch the car ferry from a town called Anacortez. Driving your car onto a boat is in and of itself an interesting experience. Once you’ve parked, you can go to the top deck of the ferry and take in the beautiful views as the boat meanders through various islands until it lands at Orcas Island, where it’s a short 20-min. drive to the farm.
Pebble Cove Farm is in a serene and natural setting.
Pebble Cove Farm is a family-run inn and like the name says, it’s actually a 4-acre organic farm. On the farm, you’ll find 2 adorable pigs, 2 miniature horses, chickens, goats and a few cats that roam the property freely. This is amazing because each morning, we’d get to wake up to whichever random combination of animals have decided to munch the grass at our doorstep, a welcome change to big city living.
Indulge in the island’s organic
fish, meats and treats.
The rooms themselves are simple, but cute and very comfortable. We didn’t want luxury when staying on a farm. We wanted wood, natural elements, and to feel like we’re out in the countryside and that’s exactly what we got at Pebble Cove Farm. The room design is simple, with a cabin-like feel. The beds are extremely comfortable, and there is even a corner chair that converts into a bed in each room, in case you’ve brought a 3rd person along. The amenities at Pebble Cove Farm beg for guests to totally unwind.
Our room came with a shelf stuffed with dozens of DVDs and a variety of books. Even though almost everything is accessible online these days, it’s a nice harkening to the days when you’d get to physically choose a movie by hand. The views from the rooms are breathtaking: right outside our door we could see the animals roaming a big open field, a cozy fire pit, and the beautiful water, tempting us to hop in a row boat and explore. The sounds of chirping birds and the occasional rooster crow reminds you that you’re in a peaceful, natural place.
When we first entered the room, we were surprised to discover a variety of natural snacks including homemade granola (which I ate all of), coconut milk, fresh coffee, and other treats. But the best part was that each morning, we’d go over to the henhouse and quite literally take some eggs right out of the coop and go back to our room to cook them! No questions of whether these were fresh. We could see the chickens right there!
Honestly, they didn’t seem to mind as long as they weren’t sitting on the eggs at the time. There was one time where I went to grab an egg, but when I opened the hatch, I was greeted to a clucking chicken who was clearly visibly irritated at my giant hand coming to take her egg.
Pebble Cove Farm is right on the water, so there’s a beautiful view of the West Sound, which is part of the Pacific Ocean. There’s also a little island about a half mile out and for those daring enough, you can borrow the giant tin box of a rowboat that they allow guests to use, and row your way out there like we did.
Grab a rowboat or kayak at Pebble Cove Farm’s private beach.
Sea lions watch for
tour boats and orcas.
It was slow goings, but we made it to “Skull Island,” which wasn’t nearly as scary as it sounds. The history shows that a long time ago, there was a battle and the skulls of the natives were littered across the island, which is how it got its name. Basically though, it’s a pretty little island covered with wildflowers, trees, and not a single human; an awesome little escape.
Pebble Cove Farm also has a vegetable and herb garden that you can help yourself to, and we did just that. My wife loves to cook, so she had a field day foraging for kale and basil and rosemary and whatever else she found in there (I don’t know what any of that stuff is, I just eat it). It was great to know that everything we were eating came right from the garden.
But what is there to do on Orcas Island other than just hanging out farm-side? Well, as you may have guessed, Orcas Island is aptly named for the regular gatherings of killer whale pods or Orca Whales! But to see them, you’ll need to patiently watch from the shore, or go on a whale watching tour like we did.
We chose Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching tour, which left from the neighboring San Juan island. To get there, you can actually drive from Orcas Island via car ferry, to a town called Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
At Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, we were greeted by Captain Jeff Friedman – a super passionate whale enthusiast who has been running boat tours for more than 5 years. According to Captain Jeff, there are two types of orca killer whales. One type eats only salmon and are super endangered, and the other eats mammals and their population is thriving. They’re the same type of animal, but they eat different foods and speak different languages. Also, they don’t really get along.
“I’ve seen an Orca toss a 2500lb sea lion 30 feet in the air during a hunt. They’re incredible!” Captain Jeff tells us. He also told us scores of other fish stories, like the one that revolved around a pod of orcas in Australia that took down a blue whale over the course of a 7-hour hunt.
A killer whale breaches at Georgina Point Lighthouse on Mayne Island, Canada.
Orcas travel hundreds of miles per day, and spotting them takes quite a bit of instinct and technology. As we head out to sea on a 38-foot Naiad motor boat, Captain Jeff gives us the rundown of how it all works.
The boat is equipped with an iPad, radar, and other equipment that helps them communicate with a network of hundreds of whale spotters from Washington into Canada.
“We all communicate with each other and mark down what we see and where and when it happened,” he said. And we were off – to Canada!
Apparently, there was a large pod of orca whales seen by some other spotters near Mayne Island in Canadian waters. Captain Jeff excitedly tells us that if this pod decides to go through the narrow straight towards Vancouver, it would be a super rare opportunity to see them up close. And it happened!
“This is it! We hit the whale watching lottery, guys!” Captain Jeff tells us.
A killer whale peaks out of the water near a waterfront home on Mayne Island, Canada.
We were lucky enough to boat alongside this pod of whales as they made their way through the narrow straight. They swam with us for nearly an hour, which gave us ample time to enjoy them and take boat-loads of pictures (pun intended). While most of the time we could only see the tops of the whales as they came up for air, they did decide to show off for us towards the end of our adventure.
Near the end of us following them, something magical happened. I had been training my camera, guessing as to whether or not one would surface again, and I luckily chose the right spot and everything lined up perfectly for the shot!
A giant orca killer whale named Onyx (they’re all tagged and tracked) made a huge leap out of the water right in front of a lighthouse off Mayne Island, and I unbelievably caught the shot with my camera! It all happened in about 2 seconds, but I fired in motor drive and caught a few frames in focus.
She launched out of the water then splashed back down in a stunning display of joy and playfulness that made the entire tour worthwhile. When Orcas “breach” as they call it, it’s totally random. There is no rhyme or reason to why or when, so catching that is super rare. In the entire tour, we only saw that happen twice and I caught this one on camera.
After following the whales for the better part of an hour, Captain Jeff zoomed us across the water to one of his other favorite spots to spot some incredibly loud elephant seals and sea lions who’ve made themselves a comfortable home on a giant rock. We circled a few times as they barked and snorted, the sun glistening off their wet backs, and occasionally you could see their breath against the backlit sun.
Stroll Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington.
From there, we headed back to Friday Harbor, said our goodbyes, and ventured back to Pebble Cove farm to hang with our farm animals.
Spend a few days on Orcas Island and you may be reminded of how simple life can be when you unplug from technology and reconnect with nature. And staying on Pebble Cove Farm, cute and quaint as it is, got me thinking. Maybe I someday I wouldn’t mind having some chickens of my own.
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