Review of a family whale-watching trip, published March 27, 2021:
Each spring between March and April, gray whales make an epic 10,000-mile migration between the Baja Peninsula and the Bering Sea. Luckily for Puget Sound residents, they know the importance of a snack break on such a long journey. Despite the significant detour, the Saratoga Passage between Camano and Whidbey Islands lures them in with its shrimp-rich waters.
With a host of March birthdays in our family and a preference for experiences over toys as gifts, we’ve made whale watching a favorite birthday outing. We masked up and hopped on a Puget Sound Express boat recently to celebrate our youngest’s transition to toddlerhood (spoiler alert: minimal tantrums occurred).
Sail in style and comfort
We opted for the Edmonds departure location as opposed to the Port Townsend alternative. It’s a shorter duration (two and a half hours instead of four) and closer to home for us, which is helpful with two young children in tow. Check in was easy and the kids had time to burn energy running around the dock while we waited for our crew.
The Saratoga catamaran we boarded isn’t much older than my freshly minted 2-year-old, and it shows: The boat impressed from the get-go with a clean interior and huge restrooms. The best feature, however, was the stadium-style outdoor standing area. Gone are the days of craning over someone’s head to glimpse a diving fluke — now you can give folks their space and still spot all the action.
The journey out to prime whale watching varies, but lasted about 45 minutes for us. Thanks to Puget Sound Express’ generous policy, we opted to bring the kids their own lunch boxes to make sure they’d have options they’d like (you can bring anything but alcohol). The smell of the famous blueberry buckle was tempting, however, as was the souvenir coffee cup that offers bottomless refills for life.
A breeze of a family whale-watching trip
After helping the kids with their snacks, I temporarily left them with my husband to test the wind while the boat sped toward our targets at around 35 knots (about 40 mph). I felt a bit like I was flying while I held on to the handrails and enjoyed the bluebird day and views of Mount Baker.
My kids were less enthused about the wind when I coaxed them into venturing out to the deck. Remember those minimal tantrums I mentioned? Wanting to spend as much time outside as possible, I made up a version of “peekaboo” called “wind, no wind” to keep them entertained. We alternated hiding in the calm air behind the helm before jumping out face-first into the stiff breeze and yelling “wind!” It seemed like no time before one of the naturalists spotted a whale’s blow and we rushed up front.
Three whales fished for shrimp roughly a football field away from the boat’s bow. Watching their backs elegantly slip through the water felt magical, as did their graceful fluke flips before they dove for more shrimp. Everyone enjoyed being first to spot the telltale spray as they resurfaced for air.
Our expert on-board naturalists identified them quickly and shared tidbits about their history that made them feel like old friends. Little Patch, who bears a distinctive white patch on his back, narrowly escaped a transient orca attack by flipping to his back to protect his soft belly. Sharp-shelled barnacles that grow on gray whales’ backs provided armor against the orcas until they eventually swam off looking for easier prey.
Just as the kids started to get wiggly, it was time to wave goodbye and head back to shore. The tour is just the right length for curious but impatient little ones. After devouring more snacks, disembarking was a cinch and we were able to get home just in time for our youngest to take a late nap.
COVID protocols, accessibility and flexibility
Prior to our trip, I called the friendly desk staff to check in on pandemic adaptations and make sure it would be suitable to take my husband’s vaccinated parents with us. In general, if you and your family participate in outdoor dining, you will likely feel comfortable on this boat. Here’s a quick summary of precautions and our experience:
- Social distancing: Alternate cabin rows are blocked off and small groups (like our crew of six) are assigned a table to maximize space between passengers.
- Limited capacity: The Saratoga has a normal maximum capacity of 130 passengers, but our sailing had only 20 people. Puget Sound Express said recent tours have ranged up to about 40 people.
- Masks: Masks are required at all times, except when you are actively eating and drinking in your seat. Signs and a verbal notice at the beginning of the trip remind passengers of the requirement, but a family on our sailing generally disregarded the rules. I mentioned this to the company, and they’ve shared comments with their staff to get better at regular reminders throughout the trip.
- Flexibility: Families with flexible schedules can call within a few days of their scheduled trip to check on how many bookings have been made and look for a less busy boat. Since a minimum of 15 passengers are required to sail, be prepared to switch to another date if the boat doesn’t book up.
- Accessibility: Passengers board the boat via a ramp. Families using a wheelchair or stroller could access the rear outdoor area, but a small step would prevent wheels from accessing the bow.
Family whale-watching trip: details
When: Gray whale tours take place through April 29, 2021. Tours from Edmonds (approx. 2.5 hours) start at 10:30 a.m. and Port Townsend tours (approx. 3-4 hours) depart at 10 a.m.
Cost: Adults ($85), Children ages 2–10 ($65). Children under 2 are free. Advanced reservations are required and can be made online or by calling (360) 385-5288.
Parking and restrooms: Parking in Port Townsend is free. Parking in Edmonds requires a $10 permit for more than 3 hours (ours was free because of the shorter tour duration compared to summer tours). There are two restrooms on board each boat.