When our San Juan Islands whale watching tour was changed from Monday to Tuesday on short notice, we had a free afternoon on our hands. So, Crystal Seas Kayaking, a partner of our whale watching tour operator, suggested that we try a 3-hour family kayak tour.
We own a couple of kayaks and use them at our local pond from time to time, so I was excited to try sea kayaking in the scenic San Juan Islands of Washington State. We met our guide near the ferry dock in Friday Harbor and she drove us to Snug Harbor, where we paired off and learned how to maneuver and stay safe in our sea kayaks.
The plan was to paddle out of Mitchell Bay into the strait where orca whales and other wildlife are frequently seen. However, as soon as we were out of the calmer waters, my 8-year-old's anxiety kicked into high gear. He was certain that the waves would tip the kayak he shared with my husband, and the more he panicked, the more likely it became that the kayak would tip over. Sea kayaks are actually very stable, and most flips on the family tours are due to user error.
My 11-year-old daughter wasn't having much fun either, so our guide decided to take us back to Mitchell Bay for an easier, less stressful tour. There was nobody else with us, and I was glad that our guide was prepared to adapt the tour to our needs. Go with the flow.
My husband and I were disappointed by the turn of events, but our kids started to have fun again in the calmer water. I can't say that I was sorry to paddle less, and our guide was still determined to give us a good tour. Mitchell Bay and Snug Harbor are scenic, and large enough to fill the time we had. We learned a lot about the local flora and fauna and encountered some surprises along the way.
Is a Crystal Seas Kayaking family tour is right for you? If you go, I hope these tips will help you make the most of your trip.
I stuffed a small backpack so full of snacks and water bottles, we almost couldn't get it into the kayak. I also tucked my DSLR camera and iPhone under the splash guard. We brought jackets, but the day was so warm, we left them at the dock.
The time flew by and we didn't touch the snacks until we were back on solid ground. I used both cameras, but would have been fine with one. A waterproof camera is the best bet, in the unlikely event that you do end up in the water. Sun protection – sunscreen, sunglasses, hat that won't easily blow off – is a must. Do bring everything Crystal Seas Kayaking recommends, but you may not need to put it all in the kayak.
One adult per child
One person over age 18 is required to share a kayak with each person under age 18. If you have more children than adults in your family, you might want to bring grandparents or friends, or Crystal Seas may be able to combine your family with another group. The guide can pair up with a child as well.
Our guide recommends the family tour for kids about age 8 and up. Kids this age can follow instructions, and help themselves somewhat if the kayak turns over. I assumed that my kids would also be old enough to help paddle, but found that neither of them was very helpful. Our guide said that is normal for most kids under the age of 14.
Thankfully, we found our sea kayaks to be fairly easy to maneuver, even without the kids' help. They have a rudder controlled by foot pedals, which works quite well, once you get the hang of it. The guides know how to work with the tides and currents to limit your paddling too.
I dreamed of seeing orca whales on our Crystal Seas Kayaking tour, but since we didn't leave Mitchell Bay, I quickly adjusted my expectations. We still saw a number of sea birds and a harbor seal, and our guide was helpful in identifying and teaching us about them. This is a tour that is educational as well as adventurous.
If you experience the usual tour route, you may see whales, though there is no guarantee. You may also see seals, sea lions, otters, bald eagles, jellyfish and more. We saw all of these animals on our whale watching tour with San Juan excursions the next day, but a small and quiet kayak may be a better vantage point for some of these animal encounters.
Try the kelp
You'll probably see several types of highly nutritious sea kelp floating on top of the salt water, and we learned from our guide that they are all edible. My kids are picky eaters, so I was astonished when my daughter snagged a piece from the water, turned to me and said, “I'll eat it if you will.”
I took the challenge, and nibbled on a bit of kelp. It tastes kind of like olives. Our guide showed us one type of kelp that supposedly tastes kind of like Cheetos when it dries. Both my kids were totally into it. Who knew?
The bottom line
I have mixed feelings about our Crystal Seas Kayaking family tour because the tour that I wanted and the tour my kids wanted was not the same tour. I think that our guide made the right call when she turned us around, and I'm really glad for the experience my kids had. But, I am still mourning the lost potential of the tour.
If I had it to do again, we might have booked it for just one parent and child, saved the experience for a romantic getaway, or waited until our youngest was older. If you do book the tour, at least you know that Crystal Seas Kayaking will do its part to make it safe and fun for your entire family.
If you're interested in a more adventurous kayak tour, check out this post from my friend Amy at Pit Stops for Kids. She has written about her family's multi-day kayaking trip with Crystal Seas, which she took just a few days after our half-day tour.
Disclosure: We received a discount on our family tour from Crystal Seas Kayaking for the purpose of review. All opinions are my own.
The Cascade Loop
What an awesome idea for an activity out on the islands. A great way to make a trip out on the water way more personal. Great photos too… maybe I’ll even try the kelp!
Going to the San Juans in the Spring. Might be a bit cold but you made the kayaking look so fun.
Thanks, Mark! I hope you have a great time!