July 28, 2010

Orca Watching at the San Juan Islands

I used to think that bird watchers were weird. To spend hours in cold, damp weather waiting for a flash of color and then, it was all over. Very strange. That is until I went whale watching in the San Juan Islands.

My daughter, who has lived in Bellingham for the past two years, was coming home, and she needed some help with moving from coast to coast. With my teaching and chairperson duties, the only option was a red-eye reservation. Most of my colleagues thought I was crazy. Or crazier.

I didn't know what to expect. I'd never been to Washington, so my trip was a culmination of assistance and last hurrah. And what a hurrah.

Besides taking care of the paperwork for her lease, my daughter also wanted me to share some of her adventures of living in Washington, so we visited the Space Needle and the Pike Place Market. She also took us to a book store in Fairview, a casino in Nooksack, and the pines surrounding Lake Padden. But the highlight of the trip was the San Juan Islands to see the orcas.

My wife, who had gone ahead and is now somewhere out in the Midwest (they are driving from Seattle to Florida and are amazed at the "amber waves of grain"), had bought the tickets for our excursion. She had also done her usual preparations: buying snacks, sodas, water, ponchos (in case it rained), and Dramamine, so that nothing could spoil our trip on the Fourth of July.

Of course, we woke up late and drove like Mad Hatters to the pier, hoping that the ferry hadn't left us. It hadn't. We were the last on board and as soon as we cast off, we let out a collective sigh.

Once we settled into our seats, we began to see the awe-inspiring beauty of Washington and the evergreen forests that line the shore. After making a few stops at neighboring islands to pick up some other passengers, we were soon in the middle of the ocean waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. Some other boats appeared. Still nothing.

My daughter asked the guide, "If we don't see any whales, will we get a refund?" He told her that she'd get a free trip at another time. She didn't seem very pleased by that answer. I tried to cheer her up. "Darling," I said (the only lullaby that always worked on her was Sam Cooke's, "Darling, You Send Me), "it's like when we used to go fishing and I had to remind you that it's called fishing, not catching." That didn't cheer her up either.

Nothing continued to happen until the guide said, "Over there!" At first, I was skeptical. I didn't see a thing. Then, someone else said "There!" I still didn't see anything. Then, my daughter, eyes wide open, said, "There, Daddy, look!" And she was transformed from this beautiful woman into the curious child with braids who took me to see turtle hatchings on a cold Sunday morning.

And then, it happened. A dorsal fin broke the water and disappeared.

Orcas are an endangered species, so the boats have to keep a minimum distance of at least a hundred yards. But after that first sighting, many of the boats formed a semi-circle around the spot and waited for another miracle.

It happened again.

A dorsal fin and a saddle patch this time.

Things were happening so fast that we had to make a choice between taking pictures or watching them through our binoculars. We chose the binoculars because the sightings were so brief, yet so intense that it would have been better to capture the majesty of these remarkable creatures in our minds than on film. Let me tell you, I have newfound respect for those photographers at National Geographic and other whale guardians in Puget Sound.

I think we made the right choice. For to catch a glimpse of that white spot near their eyes and dorsal fin thrusting through the waves is the sight of a lifetime. And we got to see members of two pods until they moved away.

As the boats left the San Juan Islands and we headed home, I realized that most of the trip--not counting the preparation--was spent going and coming from the San Juan Islands. And the time spent watching the orcas was only a tiny fraction of that time.

But what a fraction! The waiting, the absolute absorption when we heard that flooof from the blowhole of the orca or watching an adolescent breaching near the shoreline--kids do the darndest things--was a memory that I took with me on the long boat ride back and through the fireworks.

I would even take those moments back with me on the red-eye back to Miami and the many meetings on campus. Those moments.

Come to think of it, those bird watchers don't seem so strange after all.



Kathy Stanley said...

Hi Geoffrey,
So glad you got to experience seeing the orca pods in the San Juan Islands!

Geoffrey Philp said...


It was, as you can see, an xperience...not to be soon forgotten...I was thinking about your xperiences--your shakti whale dream


Randy Baker said...

Great post, Geoffrey. Just last week my family and I did a dolphin cruise off the coast of Georgia, which conjured similar feelings. I have yet to see an orca in the wild, though. I can only imagine those awe-inspiring glimpses.