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To The San Juan Islands

We kept a careful eye out for their bubbles. But we didn't see Ruffles, Granny, Sparky, Rascal, Dylan or any member of their families.

They're among the 90 huge black-and-white orca whales who live in the waters of Puget Sound and may be the most watched whales anywhere. They also may be the most famous, thanks to the "Free Willy" movies that were filmed here on the San Juan Islands north of Seattle in Northern Puget Sound. The telltale bubbles, by the way, come from an orca -- also known as a killer whale -- exhaling just before it surfaces.

As my daughter Reggie and I glided smoothly in our sleek orange kayaks close to the shore at Orcas Island, at 56 square miles the largest among the 172 islands, we did see a harbor seal poke his head out of the water, a bald eagle high in a tree branch (more than 100 pairs nest here), sea lions grazing on the rocks and porpoises practicing their water acrobatics.

Reggie lost count of all the starfish, there were so many -- orange morning sun stars, purple common stars, green serpent stars and red brittle stars.

Some people call the San Juan Islands "the magic islands" because they're full of hidden coves, quiet country roads ideal for biking and long stretches of beach with plenty of rocky tidepools to explore. Sportsmen come here from around the world to fish for salmon and trout, camp, sail and enjoy the abundant wildlife -- Great Blue Heron, black-tailed dear, river otter, more starfish than anywhere else in the world, dolphins and, of course, the orcas.

For best luck whale-watching, come between May and July. But in summer, make hotel reservations ahead. For a free Washington state travel guide, call 800-544-1800 ext. 011 or find them online at http://www.tourism.wagov.

Families who live in the Northwest come here to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, to hike or bike or fish together. For a visiting family from another part of the country, Reggie and I decided, the San Juan Islands offer the chance for some outdoor adventures and sights entirely different than those at home.

Just getting here was an adventure of sorts. We took the Washington State Ferry from the town of Anacortes, about 85 miles north of Seattle, to Orcas Island, sharing the hour-long trip with commuters and kayak-toting vacationers. Reggie immediately made some friends, playing cards the whole way while keeping one eye out for whales. She decided it would be a lot more fun to take a ferry to school -- as some kids do here -- than a bus.

If you're planning to drive onto the ferry in the summer months, arrive hours ahead and be prepared to wait. You may also plan your itinerary so you continue on the ferry to British Columbia. The San Juan Islands are only 90 miles from Vancouver. Call the Washington State Ferries at 206-464-6400.

The ferries, though, serve only four of the islands: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw. Fewer than 200 people live on Shaw Island, where the ferry dock is run by Franciscan nuns in traditional habits. Stop there to check out the Little Red Schoolhouse where all the island kids go to school through eighth grade. Head to Lopez Island for biking.

While on Orcas Island, the largest in the group at 56 square miles, take time to climb to the top of Mount Constitution in Moran State Park. It's the highest point in the islands and the view's great. See if the kids can spot any deer swimming from island to island. If it's warm, they'll certainly want to stop for a swim at Cascade Lake.

It's possible to rent a boat or take a water taxi to some of the smaller islands to see exotic birds such as Whistling swans or puffins.

Later, we'd hop another ferry to get to San Juan Island, home of Friday Harbor. With 1,500 people, it's the island's busiest town and tourist center. Here's the spot to sign up for a whale-watching cruise, a fishing trip or a tour.

This is also the place for that off-beat history lesson. It seems that San Juan Island is as famous for one hungry pig as for the orcas. In 1859, this pig almost caused a war between the United States and England, who were arguing over which nation controlled the territory.

Reggie decided she'd had more than enough history. She wanted to know more about the orcas. After a barbecued salmon sandwich, we headed over to the small Whale Museum, the only one in the country devoted to whales. (Find out how the kids can adopt an orca to support research. Call the museum at 360-378-4710 and ask about the wildlife watching boat trips.)

Besides listening to whale sounds on the phone and inspecting a giant whale skeleton, we learned that the Puget Sound orcas had all been named by researchers able to identify each whale individually by the shape and size of its dorsal fin and by the black and white pattern beneath and behind the fin. Besides a name, each orca is given a number and a letter, which corresponds to his family group or "pod."

Reggie and I watched for whales from the rocks at Limekiln Point State Park halfway around the island. We waited along with some other watchers until dusk, looking for those telltale bubbles on the surface of the water.

They never came. Reggie, meanwhile, couldn't stop talking about the swimming deer.

(c) 1996, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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