Sea Kayaking in Washington’s San Juan Islands with the man who invented it

kayaking with orcas

In 1978 with a degree in Horticulture from Washington State University, Tim Thomsen, now 67, bought 30 acres on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington with the intention of operating a nursery. Shortly after he settled in, a friend invited him to go sea kayaking with orcas. It was a paradigm-shifting experience that would change his life forever and become a precursor of what is today an immensely popular Washington outdoor activity that attracts participants from throughout the world.

When you started sea kayaking how well did you know the San Juan Islands?

Even though I had been born in Tacoma just a hundred and fifty miles south of here, I literally did not know where the San Juan Islands were.

Describe your first encounter with the islands

The ferry ride out here was a shock and a revelation. Blue water. Little green islands bedecked with evergreen trees. You are surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere. The snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the south, the Cascades to the east, with ten-thousand-foot Mount Baker, snow-covered all year ‘round. To the north is the coastal range and British Columbia. Vancouver island is to the west. There’s just nothing to compare it to. It’s an amazing archipelago.

Now there are some ten or a dozen sea kayaking and whale watching outfitters in the islands, but you were the first. Describe those early years.

I guided three and four kayak trips a day spring, summer, and fall, and in those days we wouldn’t see another kayak or whale watch boat the entire time. My claim to fame is that I’ve paddled more miles in the San Juan Islands than any human being on Earth. I didn’t hire anyone for 32 years. I have seven guides now and 31 double kayaks. Some of my competitors have up to 25 guides. We stay small on purpose to maintain the quality of the experience and gear and customer service. I train all my guides personally. We have four returning this year.

Who are your customers?

They’re from all over the United States and Canada. More and more come from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. The majority of our guests are from the Pacific Northwest, especially those coming for day trips.

You provide multi-day trips as well as day trips?

We do two, three, four, and five-day guided expedition camping trips. We break camp every morning. We never spend two nights in the same place. The guests on these trips are not hard-core outdoors people. They’re people who are active, who hike, rock climb, bike. You just have to be in average physical condition and average weight with a love of the outdoors and a willingness to accept a challenge. We love to get families out there.

Is there any danger?

You’ve got strong tidal currents and big tidal differences of normally eight to ten feet. It makes it a challenge to kayak because you have to know the tidal currents to be able to make your way to your destination safely and with the minimum amount of effort.  Our use of quality equipment and highly trained guides carrying all safety equipment and certified in first aid/CPR and often Wilderness First Responder make our trips safe.

Can I go out on my own on a multi-day trip?

We rent double kayaks. I provide you with a written itinerary of your route, where to stop for hikes, where to camp, what time to leave camp to catch the tide in your favor. Guests receive thorough instruction on the beach covering every aspect of sea kayaking. I provide you charts and alternate routes. People who rent from us are adventurous and experienced in the outdoors and love being there. We do everything we can to make it as user-friendly and safe as possible.

You advertise sea kayaking AND whale watching, can you guarantee that I’ll see whales, especially orcas?

No. Three pods of orcas live here in the San Juan Islands all summer. In fact, the first pod has already come back (in mid-April), but they’ll leave again. They’ll go through the Strait of Juan de Fuca back into the Pacific or around the west side of Vancouver Island. Orcas travel up to 100 miles a day. The three pods sometimes break into sub-pods. So sometimes you might have nine groups of orcas traveling up to 100 miles a day searching for salmon. I promote sea kayaking tours either in whale country or in other areas.  With a chance to also encounter sea lions, harbor seals, river otters, bald eagles, porpoise, humpback or minke whales, seeing orcas is a bonus.

What’s a pod?

A pod is a family group of orcas. They have their own dialect. They stay together their entire lives. About 85  orcas return here every summer – a number that varies greatly. In the fall they leave for the Pacific Ocean. No one is quite sure where they go, up into the Arctic Circle or down into the Monterey coastline. But they always come back here for the salmon runs in the spring and summer.

What’s it like to encounter an orca in a sea kayak?

To be sitting in a sea kayak with orca whales weighing maybe ten tons – males about thirty feet long – going by in the wild is one of the most spectacular and inspiring things you can ever do. You hear them breath. It’s a huge breath that has a metallic ring to it exploding from their blowhole behind their forehead. (To hear an orca, Click Here) I’ve had them come up within inches of my kayak. They’re not aggressive animals. In my experience of paddling all these years with orcas  I’ve never known one to touch a kayak. There’s no documented incidence of an orca ever injuring a person in the wild. But you have to be careful because they’re so big.

What do you think about Seaworld’s captive orcas?

Whales in captivity is one of the biggest crimes that humanity has managed to devise. I mean it is just pitiful the way they make orca whales live in those little tanks.

Brown's Guide
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