The Traffic Jam at Safari Island 🦭🦌🐋

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

In the evenings this time of year, we often hear a deep growling sound coming from across the water that sounds like a call-and-response conversation. We soon learned that the growls come from a group of Steller sea lions that haul out on the tip of nearby Spieden Island. I always imagine them saying “GRRRR, I NEED MORE SPACE”, “UUUUGHHHH, NOT HERE BUDDY GGGGUUUUGGHHH”.

Photo by Rylee Isitt

When Sachi mentioned taking the boat out recently, I knew exactly what to do: investigate the source of the growls and get to know our noisy neighbors, who mainly appear in the spring. But there was a problem. Our boat, Short Story, needed gas. As happened before, we first visited Deer Harbor Marina, which is our home base. Their gas system was out of service again. Ugh. Before adventuring, we needed to fill up and decided to cross the channel to Roche Harbor for gas, and then visit the sea lions. If only it were so easy.

Crossing the channel was a breeze. Once we got across, I noticed four or five larger boats congregating. I told Sachi it looked suspicious. It was a weekday afternoon outside of fishing season. As we got closer, it was obvious that the boats were full of whale watching tourists. We slowed down and watched from afar as the dorsal fins of a handful of killer whales came into view. We were excited to have stumbled upon the spectacle and sat for a bit to enjoy the surprise. 

The whales, of course, are protected and there are laws that govern how close you can get in a boat and what to do when whales are present. These include, according to the Be Whale Wise website:

  • Boats to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales on either side.
  • Boats to stay 400 yards out of Southern Resident killer whales’ path in front and behind the whales
  • Boats to go slow (<7 knots) within ½ mile of Southern Resident killer whales
  • Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.

The tour guides are usually pretty responsible and we stay behind their boats to be sure. After watching the whales, we decided to head towards the gas dock at Roche Harbor. That’s when we realized that we were stuck. The whales and boats had drifted into the smaller channel between us and Roche Harbor. As long as they were around, we couldn’t proceed. Soon another boat approached us from behind and a second boat came from the direction of Roche, all trying to get through. We both laughed. It was a San Juan Islands traffic jam. The damn whales were clogging up the works! We, of course, were more than happy to wait them out. 

Before long we were on our way to the marina. We’d been to Roche multiple times, but never for gas. As I’ve written before, marina gas stations sometimes work in mysterious ways and we weren’t sure exactly what their process was, other than to park at the gas pumps. Roche, being a higher-end resort, usually has friendly staff helping with gas, but not today. We got out, looked quizzically at the gas pumps, and saw no evidence of what to do next. I went up a catwalk to a commercial area and Sachi went 50 yards down the dock to find an empty shack. We were stuck once again.

Within a few minutes, a guy walked by and I struck up a quick conversation that ended with me saying, “Do you know if there is anyone who can help us with gas?” He looked around and pointed at the empty shack and said “It helps if you park near the shack.” Duh. We were as far as you could get from it. 

Before we could get the boat moved, a young staff member in resort shorts finally arrived and asked, “Can I help you guys with some gas?” He turned on the pump and I started to fill the tank. Once it got full, I let the handle go and waited for the last drops. And then I waited some more. It was like a gasket was leaking and the valve couldn’t close tightly. At the time, I thought the problem could be solved by holding the pump nozzle vertically and handed it to Sachi to replace it on the pump.

Within a few seconds, we realized we had a problem. The nozzle never fully closed and now gas was trickling down the pump. We both tried to jiggle the handle to make it close more fully. No dice. I told Sachi to get the staff guy, who was at the faraway shack, while I managed the leak. As soon as she ran off, I realized that I was in a volatile situation. It was a slow leak, but a leak nonetheless. I was on a dock, over the water, with gas bubbling out of a hose that I didn’t know how to stop. I looked for a nearby spill kit. Nothing I could see. I tried to hold my finger over the nozzle, which was a dumb idea that eventually caused gas to squirt from my thumb.

I danced around for a few seconds and eventually noticed two big white boxes that looked like storage tanks. The top cover was flat with half-baseball-sized dimples that looked like they could hold fluid. So, I quickly placed the nozzle in the center of the cover and made sure the gas could leak into the dimples instead of the ground or on me. Just as I got it set, the staff member ran to my side and turned the manual shut-off, which I didn’t know existed. He apologized and immediately started to clean up. That was true for us, too. Our bare hands were starting to burn and turn white from the gas. By the time it was done, it was obvious very little, if any, gas made it to the water. 

With washed hands and a full tank, we finally made our way back to the channel and headed over the closely shaven shore of Spieden Island, which was once known as “Safari Island”. In 1969 two taxidermist brothers imported exotic game and turned the 500-acre island into a hunting ground, with visitors buying the stuffed trophies of their kills. This created outrage and was covered by Walter Cronkite in a CBS documentary. The hunting business only lasted a few years and when the brothers left, the animals remained. Today you can still see mouflon sheep from Corsica, sika deer from Japan, and fallow deer from Europe. 

As soon as we arrived at the island we spotted groups of fallow deer, grazing the hillside and heading south. It seemed like they were escorting us down the shore. Sachi wondered if they have a water source that they visit every evening. I wanted to believe they wanted to spend more time with us. After a couple of miles of shoreline, the island ended at Green Point, the springtime hangout of the Steller sea lions. 

Just as we rounded the corner, it was obvious that we’d found the source of the growls we could hear from home. Only now, they were coming from huge brown beasts lying on the shore like overstuffed sausages on a grill. Steller sea lions can grow up to ten feet in length and weight over a ton. We kept our distance, but you could see pairs of them interacting. It felt like something you’d see in a nature documentary. GRRRAAAGGG… THAT’S MY GIRLFRIEND DUUUUUUUDE… AGGGGHHHHHHH…. I’M FULL OF FISH… UGGGGGHHHGGGG. 

I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard, anyway. 

I didn’t take any interesting photos of the sea lions on this trip, but I did get this shot of them from a kayak off nearby Sucia island in 2011 with Mount Baker in the background.

As the sun started to set, we moved on and took a quick look at Flattop from the water before heading home. Aside from the traffic jams and gas spills, it was an awesome spring day to be on the Salish Sea. From now on, when I hear the sea lions, I’ll know exactly where they are and maybe, what they’re saying. 

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