Friday, November 11, 2016

Wanderings: Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse. Lainey Piland photo

Whales. That was the one thing on my mind as my husband and I pulled into the shaded parking lot at Lime Kiln Point State Park in early October. This small park located on the western shore of San Juan Island is known to be one of the best whale-watching locations in the state.

Earlier that day, as we wandered among the exhibits at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor and marveled at the massive skeletons of those majestic cetaceans, a small note caught my eye on a whiteboard shoved into a corner of the room. Just last night, it said, a few Southern Resident orca whales had been sighted cruising past Lime Kiln Point. Well, our afternoon excursion had been decided! Off to Lime Kiln we went, in hopes of spotting those beloved killer whales in person.

After hanging the Discover Pass from the rearview mirror, we bundled up against the brisk wind that had stolen the warmth from this brilliant sunny day and set out for the trail to the whale watch site. It was just a short jaunt - a hundred yards, maybe - from the parking lot to the rocky shoreline. The trail led us beneath bigleaf maples starting to turn golden, fragrant boughs of Douglas fir hissing in the wind, and numerous Pacific madrone whose branches were heavily laden with clusters of bright red berries.

Madrone tree and blue sky.

We bypassed the already-occupied whale watching location - a large semi-circular platform perched above the water and enclosed by a low stone wall - and followed a narrow path south until we reached a vacant picnic table. This picnic table had the world's best view, I think. Nothing but wide-open sky, glittering currents in Haro Strait, and waves crashing against the rocky shoreline, sending white spray airborne. Looking north, we could see the quaint white Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse still standing guard on the Point, although its light had long been dark.

Picnic table view

Large freight ships chugged by in Haro Strait, piled high with colorful shipping containers. After my visit to the whale museum earlier that day, I'd learned just how damaging those ships are to whale populations, as they pollute the water with noise so loud it interferes with the whale's echolocation and communication. We'd later wander over to an exhibit near the lighthouse where the push of a button would play the sound collected from underwater hydrophones just offshore in real time. I was hoping for beautiful whale music, but heard nothing but the grating, rumbling noise of passing ship traffic.

We sprawled out at our picnic table, soaking in the view. Even with sunglasses, I squinted across the water made harsh and bright by the brilliant sunshine, searching for a dorsal fin or puff of spray in the glare. There were a few false alarms where both my husband and myself would grab the other's arm and point: what's that??? It was always the shadow between waves or a piece of driftwood. Until it wasn't.

After twenty minutes or so of determined searching, I caught a faint specter of white haze hovering over the water several hundred yards out. I grabbed my camera, thankful I'd brought my longer lens, and squinted through the viewfinder. A large burst of spray came up from the water, followed by another, smaller one. WHALES!!! I yelled, pointing at the distant patch of water. My husband turned to look, as did the small crowd behind the wall at the whale watching spot who were still within earshot. Still watching through my viewfinder, I snapped away as two dark backs with tiny hooked dorsal fins emerged from the water.

We watched them swim northward past us, a momma and baby whale, their rhythmic surfacing, blowing spray, dark backs slipping through water and tiny dorsal fins disappearing and reappearing in a repeating pattern. Once we caught a glimpse of a fluke. Before too long, a small boat with RESEARCH emblazoned on its side appeared, with a half-dozen people crowded on deck. The boat remained several hundred yards away as it followed the whales in their northward progress. We watched them, whales and boat, until they were no longer visible around the point.

Eyes stung and watering from the glaring sunshine and cold, penetrating wind, I turned to my husband with a huge grin and said that was awesome! My whale encounter hadn't come in the form of playful orcas breaching near shore as I'd been hoping, but there was something almost more real and personal in the quiet passage of a mother and baby whale slipping along the shoreline, cruising to an unknown destination, to unspoken business. Due to their size and dorsal fin shape, we decided by process of elimination that these must have been Minke whales. They were too small for humpbacks, too large for porpoises, and the dorsal fins were not right for orcas.

After the whales had passed and crowds dispersed, we left our picnic table with the world's best view and made our way toward the lighthouse. We stopped briefly to poke around on the shoreline, and squinted into shallow tidepools where chitons and anemones had taken up residence in the clear water.

Upon arriving at the lighthouse and interpretive center, we discovered that it was closed for the season. We'd missed it by just weeks - it is open May through early September, and offers guided walks, lighthouse tours and educational programs during those months. Those programs - plus the prospect of better whale-watching opportunities - is good enough reason for me to plan a return trip sometime in the summer!

And of course, while we were there we couldn't neglect to visit the park's namesake lime kiln. The trail to the lime kiln is just over a quarter mile long, and brings you to the very top of the massive stone oven used from 1860 to the 1920's to process the limestone quarried nearby into the final salable product: lime, which was used largely for agriculture. In a restaurant in Friday Harbor, there's an old photograph hanging on the wall from the early 1900's, showing a portly, well-dressed man selling San Juan Island lime at the Puyallup Fair. The interior of the lime kiln is still stained white with lime, as is a nearby hillside, where the leftovers and residue were dumped off a cliff into the sea. A steep staircase leads down to the "ground floor" of the massive kiln, where you can peer into the oven itself and run your fingers over the strangely worn stones.

The old lime kiln

We followed the trail through the madrone forest back to the parking lot, which had filled up quite a bit since we had arrived. Watching the carloads of new arrivals set out toward the whale watching site, I hoped they'd have the same memorable experience I had, and perhaps would also walk away with a same sense of reverence and responsibility for the incredible creatures that call these waters home.


  1. Lucky you! I've only seen whales way off in the distance years ago from Lime Kiln. I've kayaked past there several times to no avail. Have seen minke a couple times in the SJI, and yea, think that's what you saw. I saw one kayaking a few years ago from Sucia back to Orcas, but never seen any orcas out there. Love you posts!

    1. Thanks for confirming my whale identification, Jill! :) I totally guessed by process of elimination, and the minke whale seemed to be the most likely suspect. Glad I got it right!

      I was hoping we might see orcas, even though it wasn't really the season for orca sightings, from what I've heard. I'm reading a book called "Of Orcas and Men" right now, and the author has many memories to share of encountering orca whales while kayaking. Wouldn't that be an experience!