LANGLEY — Some people pay to go whale watching and a few people are paid to go whale watching.
Bart Rulon is in the lucky latter group. He is paid to be out on deck rain or shine spotting whales, identifying whales, talking about whales, photographing whales, answering questions about whales and generally marveling at whales.
“We’re seeing more whales in Puget Sound than we ever have before,” said Rulon, a naturalist, photographer and illustrator who works for Puget Sound Express, the Port Townsend-based company now running whale boat tours from the Langley marina.
Gray whales, orcas, humpback whales, minke whales — all could possibly pop up, glide by or spout in the distance on a typical day’s work for Rulon, who lives in Greenbank.
But there’s other wildlife too — maybe a harbor porpoise, stellar sea lion or seal and many birds to point out to visitors.
“We do see a wide variety of birds, besides the bald eagles,” Rulon said with a laugh. “There’s osprey, loons, grebes, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemot and in some areas, there’s puffins.”
Puget Sound Express is owned by the Hanke family, which has operated whale watching tours for more than 30 years. They run tours out of Port Townsend and Edmonds traveling to the San Juan Islands. Last month, they added the Langley tour when the owners of the former operator, Mystic Sea, decided to retire.
Pete Hanke, and his wife, Sherri, work alongside their children, Christopher and Sarah, overseeing the business and the four tour boats.
Besides day trips lasting two-and-a-half hours to four-and-a-half hours, they also offer three-day excursions catering to birdwatchers, wildlife photographers and people who want to eat, float and be merry during the “Taste of Northwest Culinary Cruise.”
Rulon said he first worked for the Hankes in 2005-06 when they needed photos for their Port Townsend office. He pursued other adventures and then decided two years ago to work exclusively with Puget Sound Express.
“I trust them. They treat me like family,” Rulon said. “It’s been a pleasure.”
He also teaches a class in natural science illustration at the University of Washington. Pursuing that specialty in college led him to eventually add wildlife photography, then wildlife photography tours, then the title of naturalist to his repertoire. His photos and paintings have appeared in many books, magazines and museums.
“I worked from my photos at first for my art work and illustrations. When I started compiling hundreds of photos, I realized I should sell them,” Rulon said.
“It all stems from being out in the field and wanting to share that with others.”
The Glacier Spirit, a sturdy 65-foot boat, will handle most of the whale watching excursions leaving from Langley, scheduled Thursdays through Mondays.
But the Glacier Spirit needed repairs in early March, so Hanke took about 20 customers out on his oldest boat, named Red Head, on a recent cruise.
“Our Edmonds boats go out first in the morning,” Hanke said while at the wheel. “Then another tour operator might be out. It’s really helpful as we can share information as to where the whales have been seen.”
While sightings of the Southern Resident orcas have decreased, humpbacks are being spotted more frequently, Hanke said.
Passengers on this particular trip are visiting from around the country, and some are locals who just can’t get enough of getting up close to the huge 35-ton, 50-foot long sea creatures. A family from Texas declared the trip far superior to their prior attempts to see whales.
“We went to California twice for whale watching and we had yet to see a whale,” said Nadine Nixson. “But we did see whales here today and they are incredible, just incredible.”
Out on deck surrounded by eager customers with tiny cellphones at the ready, Rulon explains the first clue to spotting a gray whale is spotting the spout, or blow, off in the distance.
“You might also see the tail flukes when they take a deep dive,” he adds. “We don’t see gray whales breach very often but sometimes they spyhop and bring their head above water.”
Earlier inside the cabin before casting off, Rulon gave a short presentation showing the 10,000-mile migration of the gray whales from the Baja peninsula north to the Bering Sea. They bypass the Quileute and the Makah on the North Olympic Peninsula during their journey.
The whales winter in the warm waters of Baja Mexico, mating and birthing calves.
“They don’t eat when they’re in Baja,” Rulon said, “then they become eating machines in the summer. About a dozen of the whales take a diversion of about a 100-mile round trip from the Pacific Ocean to come and feed on ghost shrimp in and around Saratoga Passage.”
These returning gray whales are known as the Sounders, and they are tracked using identifying marks on their bodies.
Last year, a couple of new gray whales joined the regulars and two stuck around all winter, which is unusual.
Rulon gets a workout on every whale excursion, hauling around his cameras and 600 mm lens that’s the size of a small missile. It’s wrapped in camouflage padding with a whale cheat sheet dangling from it.
“A lot of times, people are looking at my lens instead of the whales. It’s funny,” he said.
“We encourage passengers to stay outside the whole time or they might miss something spectacular,” Rulon added. “But some people spend maybe 15 minutes out on deck, then they head for the cabin.”
Besides scoping out wildlife, Rulon confesses he also watches people watching the whales.
“For some people, this is their life’s dream to see a gray whale, and they will do it only once,” he said. “Sometimes, some of them are almost in tears.”
For more information about Puget Sound Express, see www.PugetSoundExpress.com.
For Bart Rulon photos, paintings and books, see www.bartrulon.com.
Patricia Guthrie is a reporter with the South Whidbey Record, a member of the Whidbey News Group owned by Sound Publishing, Inc. She can be reached at [email protected].