Call Me Ishmael

Southern Resident Orcas
I have been writing here about the various creatures encountered while living on South Fidalgo Island.  There are some that have eluded me.  When I moved here, I eagerly anticipated the sighting of whales swimming in the bay in front of my house.  For local amateur naturalists, they represent the holy grail of wildlife sightings.  There are three families of Orcas (Orcinus orca), J, K and L pods, that cruise upper Puget Sound and the Straits.  These are the "Southern Resident Orcas" of the San Juan Islands.  They are known to venture into the lower Sound at least as far south as Bremerton.  According to text books and TV news cameras, Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) also spend time in Puget Sound.  This includes Skagit Bay where I live.  Even the less common Minke Whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) visit our waters.  But not for me.

What creature is more iconic of the Pacific Northwest than the Orca?  These largest of the Dolphin family remind us of a time before the arrival of Europeans.  Considered the guardian of the sea, they were revered by Native Americans and the most admired of all the whales.  They were respected for their strength and family bonds and appeared in the crests of many clans.  If someone drowned, it was believed he went to join the Orcas.

J Pod Family
My yen for whales is not unique.  We see a fascination and kinship throughout our culture.  "And God Created Great Whales" by Alan Hovhaness (listen) is a favorite musical work.  Then, who could forget Gregory Peck's Ahab in the 1956 film Moby Dick?  Even science fiction is not immune.  My favorite classic Star Trek movie is The Voyage Home.  Kirk and the crew travel back to 20th century Earth to collect a pair of humpbacks.  In the Next Generation film First Contact, Enterprise becomes the Pequod and Picard the obsessed Ahab.  The Borg assume the role of the white whale that damaged him.  Finally, don't forget Starbuck.  The name Pequod was also considered by the coffee chain's co-founders.

We humans have been drawn to close encounters with these playful and sentient creatures.  When this compulsion got out of hand, including captivity for circus acts, laws had to be passed to compel us to leave them alone.  We have been "loving them to death."

It's not just their size and family life that intrigues us.  A detail that adds to our fascination is an apparent evolutionary U-turn.  (Before getting riled at the mention of the word, you might read an excellent synopsis of evolution in the Book of Genesis, chapter 1, verses 20-23.  Evolution is elegantly described as the fifth day of creation.)  We normally think of land animals arising from more primitive aquatic life forms.  In the case of whale ancestry, the fossil record and their anatomy point to an ancient hoofed, dog-like land animal that returned to the sea.

K and L Pods Family Shot
I am fortunate to live in a spot which offers wonderful wildlife experiences.  I have written about some of them here.  Without even leaving my yard, I encounter more of nature than many will see in a lifetime.  Appreciation of nature is a Northwest value.  We struggle to preserve what we have and take pleasure in its discovery.

Yet, the whales have eluded me.  The Whale Museum provides charts documenting Orca sightings "east of Deception Pass."  I am east of Deception Pass, but after 23 years, I have not experienced a single sighting.  I suppose I could join one of those whale watching cruises with the tourists, but it would not be satisfying.  It also misses the point.  The greatest thrill comes from an unexpected encounter.  Despite failure, I have not given up on my quest.  One of these days, a pod of Orcas or an inquisitive Gray will venture into upper Skagit Bay and I will be here to see it.  Perhaps for me, 2011 will be the Year of the Whale.

With my thanks, the photographs here were provided by naturalist, author and photographer Monika Wieland.  Her blog Orca Watcher is one of my favorites.  From her San Juan Island vantage, she is literally on a first name basis with the members of the three Southern Resident Orca families.

For more information about the Southern Resident Orcas, the Seattle Aquarium provides interesting facts, conservation tips and a comprehensive list of links.

Adapted from an article originally posted at Windows Live Spaces.