Splashed by Whales

Part Three: Show Off
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The whale museum reported that two babies were born last spring to J pod, which hangs out in an elliptical territory from Port Townshend to the Strait of Georgia. These must be the ones, and like kids everywhere, they are playing.

As in a troupe of elephants, there is an apparent order here. A bull, indicated by the tall dorsal fin, leads the way, females and babies in the middle of the pack.

This is one of three pods comprising 85 animals that frequents the waters around the San Juan Islands from May to October. They feed mostly on salmon, up to a couple hundred pounds a day for the larger males. As might be expected, increased toxicity in the water and decreased food supply has led to ten fewer animals in the past five years, and these pods are listed as threatened by the Canadian government.

According to the whale museum at Friday Harbor, all three pods are inter-related and seem to enjoy their occasional get-togethers. Scientists believe orcas can live well past fifty and that two of the females in these pods are near 90.

We take it all in for another thirty minutes, our heads on swivels and our hearts in our throats. Just when we think it's over, the big bull turns back toward the pods, and with a burst of speed over 30 miles per hour, jumps totally out of the water in a breach, the world's biggest belly-flop. It's the exclamation point for our experience.

Nobody knows for sure, why precisely, the whale does this. But Inez and I get the message: "I am the bull of these waters, the biggest, fastest, toughest creature in the sea. I scarf salmon and halibut, and can kill seals and sea lions with a single blow. Follow Me!"

The water show isn't over until ten past eight. And as the sky begins its show, written in pinks and golds, Zach the guide catches up to us. "You shouldn't have just taken off," he scolds, "If a whale hit you it would shred the boat."

In an old guide trick, the words are tough but the voice displays no anger. We smiled at him.

"What a way to go."

He smiles back.

Our troupe paddles the two miles back to Roche. The tip of Mount Baker appears in the east reflecting the sunset. Along the way Inez tells me about being a dancer in Miami and meeting Zach when her body was wrecked. He was a massage therapist. Last summer they'd kayaked in Alaska. This was her first trip out this year. I told her about my wife and children. She asked where I was staying. There were so many inviting places, meadows and lakes, on the way to Roche, I tell her, I still hadn't made up my mind just where I would camp out.

"You could stay with us," she suggested.

We were bonded.

As it turned out, I decided to head back home to Whidbey Island. As I left this fairy tale colony, the restaurant lit up with white Christmas lights like on the Riviera, I realized the last ferry left in six minutes. I sped up until the little Toyota drifted across the center line and it occurred to me. Hey, this is San Juan Island. Everything is hours, sometimes years behind. I arrived officially ten minutes late but was an hour early. I took my place behind a tow truck pulling a Mercedes.

"What's the matter," I said to the beefy driver. "Somebody couldn't make the payments?"

He laughed.

As I walked over to the Anchor tavern and picked up an order of fish and chips, I could still hear him laughing. Things are different up here.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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