Rewards of volunteering are always priceless | Beach Watchers' Journal

By Dennis Linden

What happened at the 10th annual OrcaSing held at the park’s lighthouse only confirmed just how little we know about the three families of orcas who have been vacationing in the Salish Sea for eons, long before there was a summer ferry schedule.

I spent that first afternoon of summer breaking the bad news to park visitors that no one had seen J pod since the previous day and that the other two pods (K and L) had been spotted off Victoria heading west, toward the open ocean. So, no amount of marine stewardship training can explain why all three pods, which had been scattered every which way all day, showed up about a half-hour into the OrcaSing to contribute their part in the evening’s festivities as if on cue.

It’s one of those special moments that none of us who were there will ever forget.

So the evening began with a haunting drum song, while far off on the southern horizon a group of whale-watch boats floated into view with the entire Olympic Mountain range serving as a breathtaking backdrop. Some on shore, who knew how spread out our resident pods had been that day, speculated that it was probably a few transient orcas.

During the performance of the next two choral groups, the boats drifted just close enough to spot a few fins. Then, during a lull on stage between acts, everyone’s attention was distracted as the boats and the whales seemed to turn away and then disappear entirely behind the last rocky point just south of the park. I heard a spotter’s radio voice report that the whales had turned south again. Some in the crowd urged the musicians to keep playing, suggesting that the music had been attracting them closer.

It took another few rousing renditions of Handel’s “Hallelujah” before we saw anything, but suddenly a few tall fins popped out from behind the rocks. Someone pointed and yelled, “They are coming!” The tall, wavy fin of Ruffles, the oldest male in J pod was unmistakable.

As Ruffles got closer, a smaller juvenile behind him leapt almost completely out of the water, which pulled everyone on the hillside immediately to their feet as if they all were attached to the same lever!

More tail slaps from other whales had the crowd moving, almost in unison, down to the edge of the rocks to greet them. The choral group broke into “Amazing Grace” and the crowd joined in spontaneously. The whales were now close and numerous. Ruffles had delivered a super pod, all three orca families traveling together.

Males from different pods were in groups of five or six, swimming in sync with a majestic strength that vibrated with power, while mature females traveled in their own smaller groupings of two and three. The adolescents and juveniles were doing most of the aerobatics and generally acting like kids at an adult party. Mostly, though, it was a stately parade of the clans that took some 45 minutes to pass by the lighthouse.

The music and the chill down my spine never stopped. I have more questions than answers, like I said, but I am humbled for having been able to witness it.

The geographical autonomy of the San Juans is what bonds us as a community and fosters the sense of place that is unique to all who live here. However, this sense of place cannot be a passive state of mind for very long. For me, it comes with an almost motherly need to protect these islands and the waters that surround them.

You don’t have to be a trained Beach Watcher to help at the park; a quick training session by Interpretive Specialist Erin Cora will get you started on a road to becoming a whalehead. If marine stewardship doesn’t float your boat, Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is always in need of help to deal with the influx of animal patients who get in the way of the two-legged, four-wheeled migratory herds roaming the islands this time of the year. The Land Bank can definitely use weed stewards most anytime! In fact, there are some 60 non-profit organizations on the islands, so there is an agenda out there to fit everyone’s passion.

Though the rewards of volunteering are usually less dramatic than a grand parade of 90 whales, they are always just as priceless.

— This article is sponsored by WSU Beach Watchers, who serve these islands through education, research and stewardship.

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