Out on the ocean, surrounded by orcas
Visiting the Orcas
Photo by Captain Jim
Friday morning: We’re joining an 11.30 expedition with Spencer, a young man with an engaging manner and a whale-watching boat. There are seven of us, and as we head out from the bay toward the open sound, Spencer is confident that we’re going to see some orcas.
The whale-watching boats stay in touch with each other, sharing info on where the orcas are. I’m sitting up front next to Spencer, and soon I’m hearing crackling voices coming in on the radio saying that the “K” and “L” pods are heading south in our direction from Canada.
“That means we could be really lucky,” Spencer says. “The “J” pod is south of us near the point over there and heading up toward where the other pods are coming down. They may all be joining up for a superpod.”
Superpods are like orca conventions, with lots of excitement among the whales as they share information, learn about each other and perhaps do things like learning how to live together peaceably, which they’re very good at. Younger males and females get to meet their peers from other pods, and mothers encourage their sons to “go talk to that nice girl over there.” Of course, we have very little idea of what else they’re saying or doing. We can make a few assumptions from all the splashing and frolicking we see in superpod meet-ups, the fact is their cultures and customs have been developing for millions of years, but we have really no idea what they’re thinking or saying to each other or almost anything else.
Amid the K and L pods
The superpod meetup begins. Photo by the Center for Whale Research
Spencer shuts off the engine as the “K” and “L” pods draw close. About a half-dozen other boats have gathered nearby to watch them going by. “There’s one at 7 o’clock,” someone says as we start seeing the orcas surfacing, breathing, then diving again. … “Three o’clock.” … “Five o’clock.” We soon stop pointing them out — there are just so many of them — not crowded together … the expanse of water is huge and the orcas are dotted through it, a couple here, a threesome there. It’s a bit like when you’re watching a meteor shower and every few seconds another one flashes in the sky and disappears a moment later.
Anyone who’s spent time among the whales — scientists and orca protection people like Howard Garrett and Ken Balcomb, or the whaling boat pilots like Spencer — can spot many of the individual whales from the shape and markings of the dorsal fins. When an extra-large whale surfaces nearby with a very large dorsal fin, Spencer glances down at a chart of orca fins compiled by Ken’s team at the Center for Whale Research.
“That was Mega,” he says. “He’s L 41.” The chart he was looking at is one of several that have become the bible for anyone wanting to recognize who’s who and report back on who’s doing what where. It’s slow and painstaking work by the Center – and worth every minute they’ve spent on it. Here, on the right is one of Mega’s photo ID’s.
A noisy nuisance
About 10 minutes later, most of the K’s and L’s have gone by and soon they’re going to be meeting up with the J’s. Spencer starts the engine and we follow the two pods from the north.
We slow down as a tugboat approaches, hauling an enormous container vessel. “These big boats are really hard on the whales,” Spencer says. “The noise of the engines is very deep and it travels for miles.” (Noisy tugboat. Photo by Christina Becraft)
The noise polluter chugs by and we’re on our way again. Soon we catch up with a half-dozen other boats who are gathering to see the superpod coming together, and just a few moments later we have J’s, K’s and L’s popping up all around us.
Among the boats is one from the Coast Guard, keeping an eye on the whale-watcher boats to be sure they’re all complying with regulations. They pull up next to us to check Spencer’s papers, which are all in order.
By law, all boats are required to stay at least 200 meters away from the whales, and the Coast Guard is often patrolling among the boats. But if an orca surfaces closer to the boat, that’s obviously up to them, and you get a lucky close-up. And that’s exactly what happens to us.
Meet Big Mama
Grandma J2 identifies herself with the unique markings on her dorsal fin. Photo by the Center for Whale Research
Suddenly, and completely out of the blue, an orca surfaces just a few meters from the port side of the boat. Spencer lights up.
“That looks like Granny!” he says, grabbing the dorsal fin chart to double-check. “Yes, it absolutely is.”
For those of us who’ve heard about Grandma J2, the matriarch of the “J” pod who’s estimated to be about 100 years old, this is the most exciting and memorable thing that could happen. For Grandma J2 to have surfaced just a few feet from our boat is like getting to meet your favorite celebrity on the red carpet at the Oscars. It’s priceless.
Grandma J2 pauses on the surface for a few moments more, as if to introduce herself, then dives and is gone. For our part, we’ve all gone silent, staring at the water where we saw her, and thinking of ourselves as the luckiest people alive. We’ve actually met the most remarkable orca on record.
The missing family member
But the most poignant aspect of the trip is being among the “L” pod, and knowing that one of them is missing from the family group. Thousands of miles away, on the other side of the continent down at the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita has been held captive in a pool since she was abducted from the pod 40 years ago. While the rest of the L’s have each other for company, Lolita has simply a plastic blow-up whale toy in the pool with her.
Every day, she calls out to her family as the other L’s do to each other as they migrate up and down the northwest coast. And every day, all she can ever hear back is silence. The cheers of the crowds at the marine circus where she’s held can mean nothing to her.
Instead of the great ocean with its rocky depths, tidal rips, and coastal shallows teeming with salmon and other animals, all she knows is the circular wall of the pool bouncing her echo-location calls back at her like a hall of mirrors.
There are several plans already as to how Lolita could be brought back to her homeland. One of the smaller bays could have a net strung across it. Lolita could be returned there, and if she and her family showed signs of wanting to be together, the net could be lifted. If not, she could live free and happy in the bay and with people keeping an eye on her safety and comfort. It would be a thousand times better than the life she now has.
Would the Miami Seaquarium ever agree to this? Don’t hold your breath; it would be the thin end of the wedge and the beginning of the end for the marine circus industry.
Next: Orca Dinner Party