Possession Sound, n. Puget Sound, WA 16–17 March 2019

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Mar 18, 2019.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    The gray whale spring migration is underway. From February through May, gray whales will be passing through our region en route from their winter calving grounds in Baja California to their summer foraging habitat in Alaska’s Bering and Chukchi Seas.

    Most gray whales migrate along the outer coast. You can hike out to Shi Shi or Rialto in Olympic National Park on any given day during the season and see any number of gray whales right off the beach. These individuals typically only pause to forage for a day or two before resuming their northward journeys.

    However, there is also a population of a dozen or so “Sounders,” so called because these gray whales divert into Puget Sound each year and spend the spring months foraging for bottom-dwelling ghost shrimp. Unlike the coastal individuals, the Sounders linger for weeks for months, although they do eventually join the rest of the gray whales in Alaska. Many of the same individual Sounders have been coming to our waters each spring for 25 years or more and have become well known and much beloved by us locals.

    Since February, the Orca Network has been reporting Sounders every day in Possession Sound, the body of water between Everett and Whidbey Island, as well as Port Susan, the body of water between Camano Island and the mainland. I decided to take an overnight trip down across Possession Sound and down to Possession Point State Park to try to find the whales.

    After much deliberation, I decided to launch at Port of Everett, even though this is near the southern limit of the Sounders’ preferred foraging grounds. Launch sites farther north were either too far (Kayak Point), too inconvenient to reach (Langley), or closed to outsiders (Tulalip). To extend my time in the prime whale-watching waters, I first paddled north along Jetty Island to the line of sunken wooden ships outside the river mouth, then across to Hat Island.

    00 Route Map.JPG
    00 Route map. This itinerary could also be done as a day trip out of Mukilteo.

    01 Launch at Port of Everett.JPG
    01 Launch at Port Everett. Even inside Jetty Island, the currents were stronger than I expected.

    02 Harbor Seal near Jetty Island.JPG
    02 Harbor seal near Jetty Island. Possession Sound was full of harbor seals and California sea lions, plus a few Stellar's sea lions.

    03 Snow geese over Possession Sound.jpg
    03 Snow geese over Possession Sound. These beautiful birds will soon head north to breed.

    04 Through the wooden ships.JPG
    04 Through the wooden ships. These remarkable old relics were sunk at the mouth of the Snohomish River to serve as a breakwater.

    05 Crossing Possession Sound.JPG
    05 Crossing Possession Sound. There's no place like the Pacific Northwest in spring.

    I kept my eyes peeled for spouts all the way across Possession Sound, but by the time I reached Hat Island, I still had not seen any. Only rarely do the Sounders go further south than Everett, so I figured I had missed them and would just have to try my luck the following day. Just as I was altering course to head in earnest toward Possession Point, I looked over my shoulder and spotted the whale-watching boat San Juan Clipper idling in the bay. A throng of tourists packed the decks, so I knew they were watching something. Soon enough, I saw two spouts in rapid succession. They were larger than orca spouts but smaller than humpbacks. It was two gray whales!

    06 Gray whale spouting at Hat Island.JPG
    06 Gray whale spouting at Hat Island. The whale's breath sounded like a wave hitting a pebble beach.

    07 Gray whale surfacing.JPG
    07 Gray whale surfacing. Grays take a leisurely approach to life.

    08 Gray whale diving.JPG
    08 Gray whale diving. These grays tended to expose less of their bodies than humpbacks do.

    09 Gray whale and Mount Baker.JPG
    09 Gray whale and Mount Baker. Washington State still feels like wilderness sometimes.

    One of the whales swam about a mile south of Hat Island. I paddled over and spent a wonderful half hour in its company. Every couple minutes, it would bob to the surface and emit a deep, whooshing breath, linger for a few seconds, then dive again. In such shallow waters, the whale did not need to breathe deeply or stay underwater long, so the surface intervals tended to be brief but frequent.

    The gray whale was not as energetic as an orca, nor were its dives as splashy as a humpback’s, but what distinguished this animal was its beautiful, mottled skin. The gray and white spots on the whale’s back reminded me of the barnacle-speckled stones that cover most of our beaches, as if the whale’s body had evolved to mimic its surroundings.

    Last edited: Mar 19, 2019
    stagger likes this.
  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    After the whale encounter, I picked up a favorable southbound current on the afternoon flood, which gave me a welcome boost on this 16-mile day.

    Unfamiliar as I was with this area, I confused Possession Point State Park, which does allow camping, with nearby Possession Beach Waterfront Park, a municipal park that does not. A passerby set me straight as I was setting up my tent. I loaded everything back into the boat and continued south another quarter mile to Possession Point proper.

    10 Southbound down Possession Sound.JPG
    10 Southbound down Possession Sound. Whidbey Island on right, mainland on left.

    11 Possession Point beach.JPG
    11 Possession Point beach. This is lovely site is accessible by car, but because it's isolated at the very southern tip of the island, there are far fewer visitors than one might expect.

    12 Grand fir.JPG
    12 Grand fir in the forest above Possession Point. The grand is one of our most personable trees.

    To my delight, there were very few people about, so I had the long, bluff-lined beach almost all to myself. Better yet, there was a fantastic array of sea ducks loitering offshore. I saw all three species of scoter, including the black scoter, which is uncommon in Washington waters, plus both species of goldeneye, harlequin ducks, and bufflehead. Also present were red-necked and horned grebes, and red-throated and common loons. I took a folding chair down to the beach to read science fiction novels and watch the ducks diving for fish and picking at mussels.

    13 Spotted sandpipers.jpg
    13 Spotted sandpipers. Everywhere they go, these delightful fellows bob their tails up and down as if dancing.

    14 Barrows goldeneyes.jpg
    14 Barrow's goldeneyes. This is one of our most handsome ducks. Unlike the common goldeneye, which can be seen on both fresh and salt water, the Barrow's is almost exclusively seen on salt.

    15 Harlequin ducks.JPG
    15 Harlequin ducks. These ducks are so clever at finding their way through rock gardens.

    16 Basking harbor seal.JPG
    16 Basking harbor seal. Usually, harbor seals don't like to be approached by land, but this one was so comfortable it just couldn't be bothered to jump into the water when I walked past.

    17 Climbing at Possession Point.JPG
    17 Climbing at Possession Point. How delightful to have this magnificent beach to myself.

    18 BLuffs at Possession Point.JPG
    18 Bluffs at Possession Point. These sandy bluffs are eroding so quickly, I actually saw a stone pop out and come tumbling down to the beach.

    19 Northbound up Possession Sound.JPG
    19 Northbound up Possession Sound. Mount Baker presides over this part of the state.

    On Sunday, I wanted to get home in time for my brother-in-law’s birthday party, so I departed into the early afternoon flood, even though this meant I would face a moderate adverse southbound current. I battled northward for several hours in the expectation that a favorable ebb would soon come to my rescue. Instead, and I’m baffled as to how this could be the case, the current remained adverse the entire way back to the port. A 10-knot north wind added to my woes, slowing my progress and generating chop that poured several gallons of water into my kayak by way of my leaky, worthless Folbot spraydeck.

    Despite the strenuous return voyage, it was a great trip. The gray whales were absolutely magnificent animals, I got to see some very cool scoters, and the beaches and bluffs at Possession Point were even lovelier than I’d imagined.

    Last edited: Mar 19, 2019
    stagger and chodups like this.
  3. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

    May 31, 2005
    Astoria, Oregon, USA
    Great trip. Much wilder than I would expect. And those are terrific shots of the ducks. Alex, what are the three species of scoters?