BY KATE POSS
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
April 20, 2016
Have a whale of a time April 24 while supporting the Sound Water Stewards of Island County during their annual whale-watching fundraising cruise. Depart Langley Marina at 3 p.m. and cruise Saratoga Passage aboard the 100-foot boat, Mystic Sea.
The fundraiser will benefit the non-profit formerly known as Island County Beach Watchers. These volunteer guardians of intertidal zones organized in 1989 to provide outreach, education, cleanup and citizen science to promote protection and management of Salish Sea resources. The group may be best known for its annual Sound Waters conference held each year.
Sound Water Stewards’ fundraiser cruise coincides with one of the most popular events on the island: the return of the beloved gray whales, a rogue group of less than a dozen cetaceans that detour from their northbound journey to Alaska to feast on ghost shrimp among the mudflats of Saratoga Passage and Possession Sound.
The first wave of gray whales leaves their winter home in Mexico as early as January and heads north along the Pacific Coast, traveling about 5,000 miles to Alaska where they feed on amphipod (shrimp-like) crustaceans after having not eaten for four to five months. It’s estimated that about 26,000 gray whales migrate now.
Whidbey residents celebrate the annual return of the beloved marine mammals, which can weigh up to 40 tons and measure as long as 45 feet. A whale bell is rung in Whale Bell Park (next to the former Dog House Saloon in Langley) when gray whales or orcas swim by.
“We’ve been documenting the gray whales since 1990,” said Jill Hein, a lively woman whose passion for whales is evident in the photos she takes. Originally hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Hein still retains an accent that flavors her words. She is a volunteer naturalist aboard the Mystic Sea as well as a long-time member of Sound Water Stewards.
“This year we’ve seen only six grays,” Hein said. “The numbers depend on some of the females with calves, who visit every other year.”
One of the regular visitors with a penchant for ghost shrimp is Patch, a popular gray whale, known for his distinctive white patch on his back right side. In 2011, Patch was attacked by a pod of transient (meat eating) orcas, and locals worried he was done for. However, he survived the attack and has returned each year, to the relief of those who love him.
While the return of the gray whales is celebrated in festivals such as Welcome the Whales, which the Orca Network and Langley Chamber of Commerce hosted April 16-17, resident pods of orcas are much-revered as well. The 84 Salish Sea Southern residents comprise the J, K and L pods. Each pod or clan is led by a resident grandmother or great-grandmother who teaches their offspring how to hunt and behave like an orca in a close-knit family. These orcas are often sighted in the San Juan islands but travel north and south, depending on the abundance of salmon. While most orcas typically live for 50 years, there is one matriarch, named Granny or J2, of the J pod whom naturalists believe to be 103 or 104 years old. Mary Getten, a naturalist specializing in the wildlife of the San Juan Islands, wrote “Communicating with Orcas,” which details the close work she’s engaged in with the grande dame.
Cruising with the Mystic Sea on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, Hein and fellow naturalist Orca Network volunteer Sandra Pollard (author of “Puget Sound Whales for Sale”) were surprised at seeing members of the J pod feasting on salmon in Holmes Harbor.
“I’ve never seen the orca J pod this far south,” said Hein.
Babies, mothers and teenage males were present, and Hein was in an ecstasy shooting photos of spy hopping teens, which means poking one’s head out of the water to look at what is going on. Guests aboard the Mystic Sea oohed and aahed, and cameras clicked. One of the stars of the day was J34, also known as Double Stuff, as in double frosting in an Oreo cookie. Double Stuff sported a vertical dorsal fin, which Pollard identified as a “sprouter” or a teen male. Female and juvenile orcas, Pollard explained, have curved dorsal fins, whereas young male teens sprout a vertical fin, which can grow to a height of six feet in adult males. These orcas, she said, are not to be confused with the transient or meat-eating orcas that don’t travel in pods and ply the southern waters of the Puget Sound.
This year’s annual fundraiser cruise to benefit Sound Water Stewards is $75 per person, which includes a two-and-a-half hour cruise, appetizers, beverages and on-board naturalists; whales may also included, perhaps both grays and orcas. To reserve space, call 360-331-1030 or sign-up online at http://soundwaterstewards.org/events/whales/ or email email@example.com. Your support will help the Sound Water Stewards carry out their work towards a healthy, sustainable Puget Sound environment and, in turn, help the whales. To learn more about the Sound Water Stewards, visit www.soundwaterstewards.org.
Kate Poss works as a library assistant at the Langley Library. She was thrilled to work for three summers as a chef aboard a small Alaskan tour boat from 2008 to 2010. She was a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles for many years before moving to Whidbey Island where she likes “talking story,” hiking, hosting salons and writing her novel.
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