Off to the Island
From Seattle to San Juan Island to visit the orcas
Visiting the Orcas
Luna the Orca Who Wanted to Be Friends
Behind the Scenes at the Orca Meet-Up
By Michael Mountain
It’s all aboard the Victoria Clipper for a 7.30 a.m. departure. My dinky camera doesn’t do the Seattle skyline justice on a dark cloudy morning, but we leave Pier 69 for the three-hour journey to San Juan Island, home to the Center for Whale Research.
We’ll be meeting about a dozen of the world’s most knowledgeable scientists and whale watchers for an informal get-together. We’ll be tracking some of the orca pods (killer whale families and clans) from the shore and on boats, and meeting up in the evenings to exchange knowledge and experiences about the orcas who live just off the coast of the islands … and what we can do to help the ones who are held in captivity at marine circuses like SeaWorld.
Along the way, one of the crew, a conservation biologist, explains how Puget Sound, the huge system of waterways, estuaries and basins that leads out to the ocean, was carved out by glaciers about 15,000 years ago. The islands are all volcanic, all part of the Ring of Fire, and the whole region, including Seattle, is subject to earthquakes and eruptions like the famous Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980.
The ferry is full of local people and tourists, who crowd up onto the top deck at various times along the way for glimpses of dolphins, harbor seals, eagles and other animals, and then as we approach Deception Pass, where two of the many islands meet and a bridge connects them. Beyond lies the Pacific.
An hour later, we pull in to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
Candace, a marine mammal biologist with a passion for rescuing horses, picks us up for the short ride across the island to Snug Harbor, a small inlet with a marina and cabins. There, we meet Howard Garrett, who runs the Orca Network, and we stop for a quick lunch before heading on to the Center for Whale Research, where Ken Balcomb and his team of interns have been tracking various orca pods from his home and offices overlooking the ocean.
Howard Garrett, Ken Balcomb and Tim Zimmerman outside the Center for Whale Research
“Here they come,” says one of the team.
We’re about to see some orcas.
Next: First Sighting