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By Lauren Kramer
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

There's an aura of mysterious, wild beauty that lingers in the San Juans, where close to 90% of the archipelago's 172 isles remain untouched and unsettled. Kayak or boat to their shores and all you'll find around you is raptors, the silvery heads of harbor seals and a few deer who braved the currents to get there.

[Insert 4. Ferry: Washington State Ferries dock at Friday Harbor] Known as the "Orca Freeway,"

San Juan Island is reputedly the best place for orca watching by land and the whales are often seen feeding, breaching, spyhopping and lobtailing between May and October. That's when sea life is most abundant and migrating salmon, the favorite meal of orca resident pods J and L, are most abundant.

[Insert Photos #s1070, 1077, 1087]

"It's all about the food!" joked naturalist Sarah Kirkish, as we headed out on a whale watch excursion with San Juan Safaris in mid-April. Two weeks too early to see resident orca pods, our goal was to find a transient pod, and to that end we followed the food chain to transient orcas' dining preference: marine mammals including seals, sea lions, porpoises and dolphins.

[Insert 2. Orca whales]

We ventured north up the San Juan Channel, past the grassy slopes of Spieden Island, owned by James Jannard of Oakley, and the state park that is Jones Island. Amid the writhing, swirling channel currents the orcas' food source was plentiful. On seaweed strewn rocky outcroppings we marvelled at the hefty weights of basking sea lions, their bodies the colour of toasted marshmallows. They shared real estate with harbor seals and their pups on the far side of the rocks and sharp-eyed juvenile bald eagles in the mid-section. But the orcas were nowhere to be seen.

A few kids on the boat whined in disappointment but the adults just shrugged. As in any safari, these are wild animals and you can't predict their behaviour or whereabouts. So you take pictures of the bewitching view, the dream homes perched on the peaks of rocky shores and the island stories of adventure and exploration. And you head back to the island hoping that tomorrow's whale sightings will be more promising.

[Insert 5. 6376: Lime Kiln State Park]

They often are. The hotspot for land-based whale sightings is Lime Kiln Park on the west side of the island, overlooking the deep channels of Haro Strait. A small, picturesque lighthouse perches on rocks that plunge to depths of over 1,000 feet just meters away, and its sheltered cove is a favourite playground of the endangered whales and their calves. Pods J and L had nine births last year and only one calf died, good statistics given that the calf mortality rate is usually 50 percent.

The Whale Museum operates a research station at the park and has spent years studying how sound pollution impacts orca whales. Recently it installed a hydrophone, allowing visitors to hear underwater audio at the touch of a button. I pressed it hoping for whale voices but instead received a blast of rumbling engine noise. "That's a boat you're hearing," one of the islanders told me, gesturing several miles offshore to the only vessel visible in the distance.

You won't find any fast-paced action on San Juan Island, where the experience is all about quiet beauty, wildlife and hiking trails on large, forested swaths of land. A favourite pastime is to explore the roads that wind gently and peacefully around the island. One bend in the road takes you through pastures, meadows and farmland, while the others offer glimpses of the Pacific peeking through the evergreens and miles of rugged beaches strewn haphazardly with washed up logs.

[Insert 3.Artist_painting: Pelindaba Lavender Farm]

We stopped at Pelindaba Lavender Farm, where organic lavender is transformed into shortcake, chutney, and therapeutic oils, and at Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm, where the soft fibers of alpaca wool are transformed into elegant capes, socks and scarves.

As the sun set we veered north on the San Juan Island Scenic Byway for Roche Harbor, once a bustling town where massive quantities of limestone were excavated, burned and shipped. Today it's a resort where the rich dock their yachts overnight and exchange stories over pesto-crusted salmon and prime rib. In the shadow of the old lime kilns, a magical aura descends over the harbor, one that melds past and present with perfect harmony. Spend time here and you can't help feel that life is good.

[Insert Photos 6391 and 6392: Historic Roche Harbor]



Getting There: San Juan Airlines (, 800. 874-4434) offers 15-minute flights from Bellingham to Friday Harbor or Roche Harbor for $89 each way. The views of heavily forested islands and log-strewn beaches from 2,000 feet are utterly spectacular and car rentals are available in Friday Harbor. To bring your own vehicle take the ferry (888. 808-7977; from Anacortes, Wa., or Sidney, BC.

Pelindaba Lavender Farm's fragrant fields are open to the public and its store is open (www.pelindabalavender; 866. 819-1911) is open daily May-Sept 9:30-5:30

San Juan Safaris (; 877. 271-0739) offers whale watching boat excursions and kayak tours April through October with expert naturalists.

For information on the San Juan Islands contact San Juan Island Visitors' Bureau at or call (888) 468-3701

PHOTOS: As attributed below:

1. #s1070, 1077, 1087: California Sea Lions, a favourite delicacy among transient orca whales, bask in large numbers on rocky outcroppings in the San Juan archipelago. Photos: Lauren Kramer

2. Orca whales: Whales and their calves favour the deep waters of Haro Strait off Lime Kiln State Park, where they are often seen lobbing and spy hopping between May and September. Photo: San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

3. Artist_painting: Pelindaba Lavender Farm is a lush haven of lilac in the summer when its organic lavender plants are in full bloom. The country store offers a wide selection of therapeutic and culinary products infused with lavender. Photo: San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

4. Ferry: Washington State Ferries dock at Friday Harbor, the island hub that thrums with retail and boat traffic and is a great base for exploring the island. Photo: San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

5. 6376: Lime Kiln State Park is a picturesque spot with its lighthouse perched on the rocks, and a great place to learn about orca whales and look out for them on land. Photo: Lauren Kramer

6. 6391 and 6392: Historic Roche Harbor is a favourite gathering spot on the northernmost tip of the island, offering a resort, restaurants, historic sights and kayak excursions. Photo: Lauren Kramer

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