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Modern Whale Watching: Mindfulness Meets Science

Every trip in search of whales in the Salish Sea brings something unexpected.

Puget Sound Express is a family whale watching company operating out of coastal Edmonds, Washington. For 34 years and three generations, the Hanke family has offered guided tours of the Salish Sea, giving their passengers an up-close view of wild cetaceans: a bucket list experience. To see a grey whale rolling in a placid bay, exposing a fluke is to understand, like sailors of yesteryear, the power of leviathans.

Puget Sound Express has two sleek hydrofoil boats powered by jet propulsion. The Saratoga (a catamaran) and the Chilkat Express quietly cruise Puget Sound at relatively high speeds (approx. 40 knots), taking passengers on half-day tours. The boats travel as far north as Victoria or the San Juan Islands and return to the Edmonds Marina within a three-hour time window. Their daily route varies, depending on whale migration patterns, but passengers can expect to see Whidbey, Gedney, and Camano Islands, the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, as well as various inlets and waterways.

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Puget Sound Express take pains to meet and exceed regulations on how much space to give to whales. Their posture is that of stewards of nature. They observe “go slow” zones and quietly idle or shut off their engines when a whale is in sight.

“We’re the eyes on the water,” says Sarah Hanke, third-generation whale watcher. The tour boats help to track pod behavior, migration, and feeding habits. A network of scientists and researchers use this information to study whale populations. For example, they’ve been observing a grey whale named “Patch” since 1991. Patch returns to the same place at the mouth of the Snohomish River in Possession Sound. During the tour, the guides make note of which whales are doing what and where.

This compiled data helps scientists to understand whale behavior. It also empowers whale watching tourists to appreciate just what they’re looking at.

Naturalists on board The Saratoga and the Chilkat Express act as docents, interpreting what passengers are looking at. These experts break down the difference between resident and transient orcas. They can also tell you about the dining habits of minke, humpback, and grey whale species as well as a variety of porpoises.

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Puget Sound Express has a “guaranteed whale watching” policy— meaning if you don’t see a whale on your journey (it’s rare not to see a whale), they’ll offer you free, no-expiration-date tickets to come back and cruise another time.

Besides whales, you’re likely to witness some other variety of abundant Salish Sea marine life: seals, sea lions, or otters. But you may just see a resident orca toss an octopus into the air. Or you may see a humpback calf breaching. Grab a pair of complementary binoculars and go out on the deck. Or get a slice of their world-famous homemade blueberry buckle, a family recipe since the beginning of their operation.

Expect to keep your eyes peeled for surprises. That’s part of what makes whale-watching with Puget Sound Express great: every trip brings something unexpected.

Puget Sound Express

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