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Whale watching in the San Juans

Encounter with J-Pod sparks new career

Orcas frolicking near the San Juan Islands. Photo credit: Capt. Hobbes Buchanan

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It was one of those rare days in the San Juans when the sea was completely calm and still. The sailboat gently bobbed in the quiet cove. Capt. Hobbes Buchanan brought his breakfast up on deck and got the surprise of his life.

"I found myself accidentally in the middle of a pod of orca killer whales," he said. "At first, I was scared, but soon realized that these magnificent animals were just being curious and playful.  They stayed with me for what seemed like five or so minutes before dashing off into the distance.  At first I wanted to follow my newfound friends, but I chose not to bother them.  If I had to guess, there were about 20 orcas in the group.

"This was a life-changing experience for me," he continued.  "I now know I had my first encounter with J-pod. I was amazed how the whales interacted with each other and talked back and forth." J-pod is a group of southern resident killer whales which can be frequently seen around San Juan Island in the spring, summer and fall.

According to Capt. Hobbes, the experience was almost spiritual in nature and prompted a career change for him at the age of 46.  

With his boat the Tokitae, he established a whale and wildlife business that operates year round out of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.  He also spent a season working on the Soundwatch Boater Education Program.  Created by The Whale Museum in 1993, the program's mission is to prevent vessel disturbance to killer whales and other marine wildlife in the Central Salish Sea. When Soundwatch volunteers notice boat activity that could harm the whales, they engage the occupants, explain the rules and give them a "Be Whale Wise" brochure.

Capt. Hobbes grew up in England, where he joined the family tug and barge business at age 14. He has more than 40 years of maritime experience, 16 of which has been in the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands.  

In addition to his sea time, he was a member of the British Army.  

"I was in the elite branch of the Household Cavalry, the Queen's Life Guards, in which I served as a noncommissioned officer traveling alongside the carriage the Royal Family rode in on ceremonial occasions," he said.

Capt. Hobbes' whale and wildlife tours are educational and informative while also being fun. His British accent enchants the audience as he shares tales and adventures of the San Juan Islands. The tour lasts about three hours.  In addition to whales, other wildlife viewing is possible during the voyage around Safari Island (Speiden). On my tour, we saw sea lions, European Sika deer, Asian fallow deer and Corsican big horn sheep. I also saw two bald eagles locked together and falling from the sky before they separated.  According to Capt. Hobbes, they were mating.

We also made a brief stop at a cove that is part of Jones Island Marine State Park, which can only be reached by boat. During the warmer months, clients can be dropped off at the island to spend the day.

The Tokitae departs daily at noon year round from the Spring Street Landing. Hobbes also offers private charters and water taxi service.

Blackfish Whale and Wildlife Tours, open daily at noon, reservation required, Spring Street Landing, Friday Harbor, 360.298.0012,

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