The early-morning sun glinted off of sleek black dorsal fins as they broke through the water’s surface. I sat on the rocky shore beside a lighthouse, watching the trio of orcas travel through Haro Straight. Vancouver Island stood hazy in the distance. Somewhere nearby, a small child squealed “I see them!” Others bounded along craggy rocks to get a better view. Below them, a river otter escaped notice as it slipped silently into the water. All eyes were focused on the ethereal black and white mammals that have captured the world’s imagination over the past several decades.
Orcas, killer whales, the wolves of the sea – these apex predators go by many names. Some people may know them as Shamu, thanks to SeaWorld’s once-popular orca shows. Now that controversy over the ethics of keeping these highly intelligent creatures captive has led to a sudden drop in SeaWorld’s popularity, increasing numbers of people are finding their way to San Juan Island and other whale-watching destinations to see them in the wild. If the gleeful shrieks of the children on those rocks were any indication, witnessing their natural behavior is every bit as exciting as those manufactured performances.
San Juan Island is a short ferry ride from Anacortes, Washington. The small island hosts only one town: Friday Harbor. Seafood restaurants abound, proudly displaying their meals of fish and crab in contrast to the adoration shown for select sea life. A statue of a locally-famous seal named Popeye stands along the sidewalk while miniature orcas leap off the sign that welcomes you into town. A short walk from the ferry, The Whale Museum holds exhibits on the local population of orcas. Each one has a name, each one has a story.
It was on my first visit to the island that I saw the full extent of the wild orca extravaganza in the surrounding waters. I boarded one of the many whale-watching boats that depart the island daily. Standing on the bow, the chill wind bit through my clothes, but the thrill of adventure kept me from retreating inside. Before long, everyone was vying for a spot along the rail as we found ourselves surrounded by a pod of orcas. Some swam by calmly, while several of the youngsters leapt from the water as high as they could go before slamming back down with a splash. On the boat we cheered them, filled with wonder at their antics.
The naturalist on board explained that this group was known as J Pod, one of three pods that make up the population of orcas who call the Salish Sea home. They were led by their matriarch, J-2, also known as Granny. She passed away last winter at an estimated 105 years of age – a huge blow to these animals who form tight family bonds and rely on elder females for wisdom and guidance.
What is it about orcas that draws so many people to them? Perhaps it is their intelligence that may rival our own, or their complex social structures that are so similar and yet so foreign to us. Whatever the reason, the people of San Juan Island are certainly benefiting from their marine neighbors. In addition to whale-watching boats, there are kayaking tours and island-hopping camping excursions, all structured around the effervescent wolves of the sea. How long this can continue remains to be seen. The resident population of orcas is steadily declining due to a lack of food – they rely on salmon that have been decimated by dams and overfishing – and pollution that is contaminating their bodies with lethal toxins. If the orcas were to disappear, the island would be irrevocably changed.
On the final day of my second visit to the island, I sat on a bench in Friday Harbor soaking up the peaceful atmosphere that seems to always hang over the town. A local joined me to eat his lunch, and our conversation quickly turned to the orcas. He spoke of them with such fierce love and admiration that I began to feel hope for their future. Maybe the people who have benefited the most from their presence will be the ones who save them.