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Sunday, October 4, 2009

An October Sunday in the San Juans

It was a sunny but blustery day here in the San Juan Islands. I was working on the Western Prince this afternoon and while the whales were out of range up to the north of us, we still had a beautiful afternoon on the water. In addition to harbor seals, Steller sea lions, lots of sea birds, and some exotic terrestrial mammals on Spieden Island, we saw several groups of Dall's porpoise. While a few were bow-riding for a moment, one of the coolest parts was when they were just swimming alongside us and you could see their whole bodies underwater. It was amazing to me that we could see them underwater as long as we could, and during that time they neither dove out of view or broke the surface. Here's pretty much my only porpoise photo of the day that turned out, but it captures the moment well. The head of the porpoise is to the left, and you're seeing the white flank markings and the white-tipped dorsal fin:

We saw one Dall's porpoise that was missing most of its dorsal fin, which is something I've never seen before. Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of it. It must have had some negative encounter with a killer whale or a boat that led to that injury.

As we passed Lime Kiln Lighthouse there were small groups of Dall's porpoise everywhere, mostly traveling and foraging. It was also a great photo-op of the lighthouse itself, which is situation in Lime Kiln Point State Park. I've spent a lot of time over the years on shore there waiting for and watching whales, but it isn't often I get to photograph it from the water. To the left of the lighthouse the white cliff is all run-off from the historic lime kiln operation that took place there in the late 19th and early 20th century, a piece of history that gives the park its name:

I don't think I've ever written much about the Washington State Ferries that service the San Juan Islands. Being islands, the only way to get here is either by plane or boat. Most people arrive via the Washington State Ferries that serve the four largest islands (San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw) and depart from Anacortes, WA. Most of the ferries are large enough to carry well over a hundred vehicles, like this one:

In addition to ferries to and from the mainland, there is also a ferry that goes to Sidney, British Columbia, and another smaller ferry that only goes between the four major San Juan Islands, which is known as the inter-island ferry. Our normal inter-island ferry, the MV Evergreen State, has been out of commission for a few days, so they've temporarily replaced it with the MUCH smaller MV Hiyu.

I always love when the Hiyu serves the San Juan Islands, because, as far as its possible for a boat, it's really cute! Someone recently described it to me as looking like a "wind-up ferry" and it really does next to are much larger ferries. Here it is pulling into the dock, as seen on my walk home from work today:

The Hiyu can actually carry 34 vehicles and 200 passengers, which is still lower than the 87 vehicles and 980 passengers the Evergreen State can carry but probably sufficient for inter-island service in the off-season.

Via a little internet research I learned today that the Hiyu was actually built in Portland, OR in 1967. Most of her career was spent serving the short route between Vashon Island and Tacoma down in Puget Sound, but like most of her other gigs over the years, she was displaced when demand increased and they put a larger vessel on her route. For ten years she was out of use all together and people thought the vessel would be sold, but in 2007 she was called back to action as it became apparent there were no other vessels available when a Washington State Ferry was pulled for maintenance issues.

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