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Puget Sound Express guarantees whale of an experience for thrill seekers


Whale watchers on the Saratoga watch a breeching humpback. Operated by the Hanke family out of Edmonds and Port Townsend, Puget Sound Express guarantees visitors will see whales, or they’ll get another opportunity for free. The 120-seat Saratoga is the fastest whale watching boat on the West Coast.

Thrill-seekers are always flocking to the highest rollercoaster, black diamond ski slope or Marvel action movie. But they actually can find the biggest adrenaline pumper right in our own backyard, when breaching whales seemingly fly out of the blue-gray sea, defying gravity.

Gray whales, humpbacks, minkes and, of course, orcas are putting on the best show in town daily when they jump out of Puget Sound’s chilly waters.

The challenge is finding the show, which regularly changes locations.

Fortunately, a team of experts with more than three decades experience can do the searching for you. Puget Sound Express sails out of Edmonds and Port Townsend, transporting passengers to enjoy that day’s show.

Actually, the show often begins even before the anchor is raised. That’s because, as locals already know, the majestic Puget Sound is nature’s playground. Besides whales, passengers can expect to see an amazing array of other wildlife, including sea lions, seals, porpoises, eagles and other birds.

The well-planned trip has been fine-tuned by the Hanke family, which has been operating whale-watching tours with Puget Sound Express for more than 30 years. A TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence winner, Puget Sound Express has steadily expanded its operation so that you can choose from a variety of options for your whale-watching adventure, including half- and full-day trips on state-of-the-art boats that sail out of either Port Townsend or Edmonds.

The Hankes are so confident you’ll see whales that, in the almost unheard of occasion when the whales take a day off, you’ll get another trip for free.

Three generations of Hankes have been sharing their love of the Northwest with friends and strangers alike, going back to 1981 when Peter and his son, Pete, began offering week-long adventures on an 80-foot schooner, the Alcyone.

According to Sarah Hanke, the family business transitioned from sailboats to powerboats, always with an eye toward providing eye-popping whale watching opportunities, from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Hood Canal to the San Juan Islands.

When they expanded to sailings out of Edmonds in 2015, they ensured they could take passengers to where the whales were performing with the addition of the 60-passenger Chilkat Express, which, at a top speed of 40 knots is the fastest whale watching boat on the West Coast. This year, the Chilkat is joined by the brand new, 120-passenger catamaran Saratoga, which also can reach 40 knots.

All of the boats feature indoor seating with large viewing windows for every passenger, as well as walk-around decks, two restrooms, snack bars, hydrophones to hear whales “talking” underwater, free use of binoculars and other amenities. To help visitors enjoy a full understanding of the adventure, a naturalist rides along.

Even locals who have enjoyed a whale-watching excursion before will find the adventure keeps getting better all the time. Right now, the gray whales, which are famous for enduring a 10,000-mile migration – one of the longest in nature – between the coast of Baja California and Alaska’s Bering Sea, are heading out to finish their trip north.

At the same time, humpbacks and orcas are showing up. In fact, the Chilkat has been venturing deep into Hood Canal to watch the T65A pod and see its newest calf.

And the humpbacks, which were nearly wiped out by over-whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries, have been making an impressive comeback thanks to worldwide efforts to protect them. That means more whale-watching opportunities for everyone.

“It’s really a unique opportunity,” Sarah said. “They were nearly whaled out. But now we’re seeing from 30 to 50 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca during the summer.”

And to add a bit of family atmosphere to the fun, passengers can enjoy Sherri’s famous blueberry buckle, baked daily onboard. “My mom grew up on a blueberry farm in Woodinville,” Sarah explained, “so she has the best recipe.” Puget Sound Express partners with Red Twig Café in Edmonds to offer box lunches for the trip. There also are hot and cold drinks and snacks in the galley.

Besides being an expert baker, Sherri works in the office, answering questions and solving problems. Pete and son Christopher, both captains, can be found behind the wheel, while Sarah oversees sales and marketing. Both Grandpa Peter and Grandma Sue keep a hand in the operation as well, both on land and sea. Interestingly, the second and third generation members all graduated from Whitworth College in Spokane, a long way from the shores of the Salish Sea where they grew up. So, not surprisingly, they all came back to work in the place they love.

That love shows throughout the Puget Sound Express operation. Join them for an experience of a lifetime. Right now, the wildlife is plentiful, the waters are at their calmest, and the weather is getting nicer by the day.

Reservations are recommended. To sign up or learn more, visit pugetsoundexpress.com. Thrill seekers of all stripes are welcome.


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