Whale of a Tale on the Schooner Zodiac

Pacific Northwest Magic

Editor’s Note by Diane Rudholm

Photo at right: Diane on board the 127-foot wooden Schooner Zodiac in Bellingham Bay. Photo by Leyland Rudholm

When I describe my four days aboard the Schooner Zodiac last fall, I have to do my best not to use the word “magic” every third word. That ship. I could write a book of love poems for that ship.

Built nearly a century ago, the 127-foot wooden boat sails near her Bellingham, Wash., homeport. Muse status aside, what’s important to know about the Zodiac is that she’s a learnin’ ship. The crew (yes, that included me) was expected to help out to the best of their ability to raise her massive sails and coil her impressive ropes—and to rotate through navigation-related duties throughout the day.

A Whale of a Tale

My first duty during our journey was to stand watch at the bow (front) of the ship, where I delighted in the mix of brisk wind and the warm sun. My vantage let me see much of Bellingham Bay, the San Juan Islands and Mt. Baker at once. Bonus: my husband, Leyland, handed me a mug of hot chocolate at the start of my watch.

There was a moment when I thought life could not have been sweeter.

And then I saw them, not unlike rabbits being pulled from a magician’s top hat: A trio of humpback whales crested, tumbled, lunged, and tail-slapped in the distance.

“Whales!” I waved my arms (spilling not a drop of my hot chocolate). In the next minute, the Zodiac began to turn in a wide arc. We inched stealthily across the water until we were 40 feet from the massive creatures.

One of the whales exhaled an enormous breath from her blowhole, spraying water high into the air! The sigh—even from 40 feet away—gave off a robust oceanic odor that that we dubbed “L’Eau de Whale Breath.”

The whales presented their mammoth tails in full iconic glory—and with a tap of an imaginary wand, Abracadabra—they disappeared and reappeared on the horizon far, far away.

“Making” Photos in the Islands

The Zodiac’s guest crew is entrusted to help hoist the ship's massive sails. Photo by Anita Crocus

Along with learning nautical skills and oo-ing and ahh-ing over whales, we were aboard the Zodiac to learn photography from Chad White, a professional photographer and professor at Bellevue College, who encouraged us early and often “to make photos to get better at making photos.”

So, that’s what we did. We made hundreds of photos, talked about them and then made some more.

We sailed to Sucia Island and hiked through trail-side madrone trees. We explored Roche Harbor, where we admired unexpected shapes in fallen leaves and shop windows. We discussed illusions and process, and photos that are of one thing but about another.

We anchored under a fog-veiled moon near Stuart Island one night, and in the morning hiked in the rain to Turn Point Lighthouse. We listened to ravens’ calls echo across the trail on the way back and tried to get photos of a blur that might’ve been a dog or a raccoon or Sasquatch.

Near Shaw Island, we celebrated a crew member’s birthday with a mesmerizing sunset, and we did our best that night to photograph ever-elusive starlight.

And, throughout this curious adventure, we took hundreds of photos of Abby, the Zodiac’s resident cat.

Brilliant Pacific Northwest

“Bittersweet” doesn’t cover the feeling of leaving the Zodiac. As we neared the Fairhaven Cruise Ship Terminal to depart from our four enchanted days of saltwater bliss, Leyland and I were ready to stow away in one of the bunks and spend the rest of our lives sailing and making photos.

But, we can go back. We can discover more next time. And, because we live where we live, we can do it affordably.

That’s what’s so brilliant about life in the Pacific Northwest. Think about it. We live within a day’s drive of thousands of achingly beautiful destinations and charmingly new experiences. We can choose to skip the eight-hour flights, the layovers and the hassles.

That kind of access to adventure is its own sort of magic.


The Schooner Zodiac: www.schoonerzodiac.com
Chad White: www.stopdownstudio.com
Bellingham Tourism: www.bellingham.org
San Juan Islands: www.visitsanjuans.com
Sucia Island State Park: www.parks.wa.gov/594/Sucia-Island
Roche Harbor: www.rocheharbor.com

Diane Rudholm is the managing editor and social media director of OutdoorsNW. Write and tell us your favorite Pacific Northwest travel experience. Click here to send email or @OutdoorsNWmag.