Monday, July 11, 2016

Trip Report: Visiting the "real" Sea World

My boys offering Tilikum their popsicles
Sea World Orlando
January 28, 2010
For as much of a Disney Parks fan as I am, some of my absolute favorite family vacations have included visits to Sea World. There's just something about the combination of shows and pacing of a visit there that's suited our family incredibly well over the years.

Everyone has had a good time, and while there are a variety of things to enjoy at Sea World the theatric Shamu orca shows have certainly been the highlight.

I enjoyed visits to Sea World San Diego growing up. I wasn't bound and determined to become a marine biologist by any means but I was amazed by how the whales performed. Orcas are some of the best looking animals in the world and to see them put on a show up close has never disappointed.

Once I had kids of my own the show really impressed me in new ways. I don't know if it was the quality of the production or what, but when I took our boys, 4 and 2 at the time, to see the Shamu Believe show at Sea World San Diego in 2009 I was totally unprepared for how it affected me.

I'm not much of a cryer at all - perhaps once every few years or so. But by the time the show was over me and my 4 year old were sobbing on each other's shoulders. There was something about the amazing show the orcas and the trainers put on that day combined with the messaging, as Hallmark corny as it may have been, that struck a chord with me. Part generational, part connection with the whales, part inspiring kids to be the best they could be. Sea World knocked it out of the park with that Believe show.
My 4 year old and I sobbing on each other's shoulders
after watching the Shamu Believe show
January 2009, Sea World San Diego
We haven't been to Sea World since the release of Blackfish in 2013. Not necessarily because I've bought in fully to the message in the film. But I've felt like I wanted to learn more about orcas in the wild before I could be enthusiastic about visiting them again in captivity.

See, I don't consider myself a true animal lover. Or really a whale fanatic in general. There's just something about orcas that really fascinates me. And I can't trace that interest back to anything other than my visits to Sea World over the years.

So I'm torn: On one hand Sea World is responsible for my interest in orcas. On the other hand keeping orcas in captivity is particularly cruel given what their lives are like in the wild versus how they live at Sea World.

After the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010, I started following the controversy surrounding orcas in captivity and specifically at Sea World more closely.

I read Death at Sea World and took note of this piece which recommends a visit to the "real" Sea World in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle over a visit to Sea World parks. Have a look at this quick video:

When the opportunity arose for a summer family vacation to the Pacific Northwest, I was sure to include ample time in our itinerary to try to see orcas.

Turns out - it's quite difficult to spot orcas in the wild.

I did as much I think as any reasonable parent could to put their family in a position to see orcas in the wild in the Pacific Northwest. Were we successful? Did we have a good time? Read on...

Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor

We left our hotel in Seattle around 10a bound for Anacortes, the nearest ferry departure point to the San Juan Islands. Our destination was Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. I made reservations well in advance and arrived right on time without incident for our 1 hour ferry ride.

First off, I'd highly recommend getting a car even if you're staying in Friday Harbor because other parts of the islands are most conveniently reached via car.

I was hopeful that we might spot an orca on our ride out on the ferry. The woman pouring wine at Chateau Ste Michelle (a nice quick tasting stop not too far out of the way) said we probably would - she had in the past.

Unfortunately, we did not see any orcas on the ferry ride. Oh well. It was a long shot. It was a fun, calm, and beautiful ride through the islands to our destination.

Cost: $90 roundtrip for a family of 4 including car.

Lime Kiln State Park

Lime Kiln State Park is sometimes called "Whale Watch Park" because it's so popular with tourists who want to catch a glimpse of the orcas cruising by. A lot of things I'd read, including the piece linked to above, seem to imply that there's a very good chance you'll see orcas while visiting Lime Kiln State Park.

We were not so fortunate.
Lime Kiln State Park
8:00a July 6, 2016
No whales
I first visited for about an hour around 8a the first morning after we arrived. There were a couple other enthusiasts roaming the shore hoping for a glimpse and chatting about orcas, salmon population, and eco system effects on the orca population. But no whales appeared.

We came back with our families later that afternoon and stayed for a couple hours. There was some excitement in the air as the J Pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales had been sighted in the area a few days prior. And they'd been seen 100 miles north hours earlier in the day. There was some speculation they might cruise by at any moment so we kept up hope. But after a couple hours with no whales we left, a bit disappointed.
Lime Kiln State Park
2:00p July 6, 2016
No whales
From the looks of things, sightings at Lime Kiln have been rare in 2016. Like 5 days in the past two months rare. As compared to 2015 which had 22 days with sightings at this point, that's quite a drop in action. But even so - the whales don't pass by Lime Kiln at all most days even in a good year. So there's a very good chance that if you sat there all day from sun up to sun down that you wouldn't see an orca. That's long odds compared to seeing an orca at Sea World.
Whales last sighted 3 days ago?
I don't like our odds here...
After an unsuccessful visit to Lime Kiln I was starting to get discouraged.

Fortunately, we had our best chance for sightings yet to come with a whale watch cruise booked the next evening.

Cost: $10/day for parking. $30 for a season pass.

Whale Watch Cruise

Before our trip I did some research on whale watch companies out of Friday Harbor. There are quite a few companies to choose from, but I was surprised at how there weren't a ton of time slots to choose from. In fact, many of the smaller companies were booked up on some days a couple weeks in advance.

I ended up going with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching on a 4p cruise. They sail out of Snug Harbor on the west side of the island, about a 20 minute drive from Friday Harbor. They had the #1 ranking for activities on Trip Advisor for Friday Harbor so I went with them even though they were pricey at $129 per person. On the bright side they have just 6 passengers per boat along with a naturalist and the captain.

The morning before the cruise we checked out The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. It was fun, if a little dated, but mostly orca focused so it hit the spot. Overall, I was struck with just how primitive our knowledge of orcas is. I mean - in the '70s Sea World was legally rounding up and capturing orcas in these very waters for their shows. Now they're ending their orca breeding programs and planning to end theatric shows? Amazing how quickly things can change.

Worsening my apprehension about an expensive and disappointing whale watch cruise was the forecast for rain that evening right about the time our cruise was set to start. This combined with the fact that not all of the whale watch expeditions were successful in seeing orcas had me quite concerned I was setting up for a $500+ bust of a whale watch cruise. But we soldiered on!
We departed out of Snug Harbor
Last chance to see orcas
We arrived at the appointed departure point with plenty of time (didn't want to miss it) at the lovely Snug Harbor Resort. It was the four of us plus a nice couple from Miami on the boat.

Captain Alan briefed us on safety but the question we all wanted answered was: "What are the chances we'll see orcas?" He played it cool. To my [growing] concern he said the morning expedition did not see any orcas. But they did see a Humpback! "Big whoop," I thought to myself. If I don't see any orcas it's going to be a sad sight...

Shortly before taking off he shared good news about our chances for seeing orcas: They'd been spotted right at the entrance of Snug Harbor moments ago! We were going to see killer whales!
Me and my 9 year old
Primed to see some orcas
As soon as we got out of the harbor we could see a collection of other whale watching boats about a mile away. The captain kicked it into high gear and we joined the pack in about 10 minutes. Moments later, it happened. We saw our first orca in the wild!
Orcas! J-2 Granny (I think) and another J Pod whale
At first I felt a sense of urgency to make the most of this precious moment. I mean, earlier that day we were learning about the J Pod's matriarch "Granny" and here we were 200 yards from her? Of all the places in the ocean, we found her? Amazing.

As the evening unfolded we'd see about 15 distinct killer whales breaching, tail slapping, spy hopping, and generally putting on an amazing show for us.

The fact that the J Pod was right outside the harbor where we started our whale watch cruise was tremendously fortunate. I mean - if they were an hour away we would have spent two-thirds of our time getting to them and back to the harbor. But as it was we spent almost the entire 3 hours with the whales. It was fantastic.
L-87 Onyx with his straight 5' dorsal fin
Keep in mind that by law, boats can't intentionally motor to within 200 yards of a killer whale. The best you can hope for is a scenario where the captain kills the engine and a killer whale decides to make its way over to your boat.

More commonly, you're cruising on relatively calm waters at the same pace as them watching them glide along the surface of the water, exhaling powerfully and audibly through their blowholes, and generally putting on a surprisingly good show while they're hunting for salmon.

I intentionally posted these grainy photos taken with my iPhone so as not to oversell how close we were to the whales. If you want to see some great shots taken with a telephoto lens, head over to this Nature's Keeper's Facebook page. The photographer, Heather MacIntyre, was the guide on our cruise. She did a tremendous job explaining what we were seeing and maximizing our experience out on the water.

I shot a couple of videos.
Here's one on Twitter showing a mama and baby breaching back to back.
Here's one on Instagram showing the pod traveling together with a big breach. Wait for the splash at the end.

It was so exciting being out there on the water not knowing what they might do next. Might we get super close to one? Might they jump really high out of the water like at Sea World? The spontaneous mystery of it makes every cruise unique. You never know what you're going to see.

I sat on the front of the boat the entire time, not noticing until about two-thirds of the way through that it had been raining pretty heavily. I did not mind one bit.

Overall, it was a truly amazing experience. Worth every penny and then some. I'd gladly pay to go again in a heartbeat - if we were guaranteed to see orcas!

Cost: $129 pp (cheaper options are available on boats with more people)

Bottom Line

So was it worth it? Absolutely, for us. Getting to see orcas in their natural environment was something I've wanted to do for a long time and I'm so glad we were able to. We had a great time doing it together as a family.

But what if we hadn't seen orcas on the trip? Or if we only saw them in the very far off distance with little impact? I think my feelings would have been quite different, both in terms of whether it was "worth it" and in terms of my current feelings about orcas in captivity.

If we hadn't seen orcas on this trip, I would have left feeling like I tried very hard to "do the right thing" and see orcas in the wild instead of at Sea World and ended up disappointed. I think I would have felt a bit more like there's a reason for Sea World. They make seeing an orca a sure thing and that's an opportunity that most people don't get.

Seeing orcas in the wild was a more educational experience that sparked a different kind of curiosity than I left with after seeing them in captivity. Whereas after seeing them at Sea World I thought they were "amazing" I'm now feeling even more curious about the eco system challenges orcas face in the wild. Why are sightings of the J Pod down so much this year? They say it's because of a dangerously low supply of salmon - why is that? Do dams need to be opened? Is the area overfished? What are the implications of righting those situations? So many questions.

In the end, I still see merit in what Sea World has done with their orca shows. If it weren't for them, many of the most effective proponents for orcas might not have gotten their initial inspiration. Sea World has certainly heightened awareness of orcas and other sea animals over the years - if they're not permitted to continue providing this kind of spark, where will our next generation draw its inspiration from?

Will we go back to Sea World? Gosh, I don't know. I mean - I love seeing orcas any way I can. But after seeing them so healthy and vigorous in the wild it would be depressing to see them in captivity with their collapsed dorsal fins, decaying teeth, and general lethargy from being cooped up in small pools for years.

You know what I'd like to see? I'd like to see Sea World take it to the next level with an immersive resort right on the ocean in the Pacific Northwest. Create some huge sea pens where a semi-controlled environment would enable them to serve as a rehab hospital for sick orcas and ones that have formerly been in captivity. Combine it with amazing on-shore exhibits and guaranteed opportunities to see orcas in an environment that enables them to get out and explore a bit and I'd be there. It could be amazing if done well. And it's not as far fetched as you might think.

But I don't know... It sounds kind of like Jurassic Park. And we all know how that ends.

I really hope Sea World can find a way to continue to inspire the public to have a greater appreciation for sea animals - especially orcas. But in the mean time, if you get a chance to see orcas in the wild I'd highly recommend it.
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