Monday, July 27, 2009

Black and White Majesty

San Juan Islands, Washington

Okay, so I have to admit I've got motion issues. The seasick gene. The carsick gene. The sitting-on-a-rocking-chair- makes-me-nauseous
gene. I usually cannot go out onto the open ocean without feeling like I want to kill myself more and more with each wave. But...

I really, really wanted to see Orcinus orca, in the wild, largest member of the dolphin family. So...I take Dramamine (label says "slight drowsiness") and decided to take the risk. Orca are worth it. Definitely worth it.

On board the Island Explorer (thanks so much to our good friends Sheila and Ron for setting it all up.) Sunscreen. Snacks. Camera. Eyes ready to meet one of the most spectacular creatures of the ocean. We travel through the islands, the sea is calm and my equilibrium, so far, is happy. San Juan Island takes my breath away. Isolated. Wild. Spectacular. We salivate over the homes that sit at the ocean's edge. I dream of being a writer living on a remote Pacific North western island. We see harbor porpoises, shy and skittish, jumping through waves. We learn how there are three resident orca pods here--J, K, & L-- totaling 88 orca.

Our captain keeps us informed. No orca sightings yet, but in constant communication with other whale watching boats. They are almost sure we'll sight some today. Butterflies flip & flap in my stomach. We cruise San Juan in to the open waves. I keep my eye on the horizon. Sit on the top level. The strong wind chills me, but the air on my face keeps my stomach feeling just fine, and I'm not even tired. This just might work out!

We get word from the crew. Orca nearby. The ocean is immense. The sun's rays reflect a shine back into our eyes. We scan the water. Nine o'clock. Twelve o'clock. Three o'clock. Nothing. Like cattle, we all move from the bow to stern, starboard to port, surprised that the boat doesn't tip! Stretch your eyes. Search the waves. Anticipation connects us all together. We're looking for a dorsal fin. A BIG dorsal fin. Up to 6 feet tall on a male.

We find out that there are two pods of orca here in the San Juans. One resident population that eats only salmon (has a smaller jaw) and stays local all year. The orcas in the other pod are transient, larger in size, and eat small mammals. Today, we'll see the resident orca.

Orca! Three o'clock starboard. An adult male. His dorsal fin cuts through the deep blue water. We let out a communal sigh--cameras snapping, hearts fluttering. The orca is magnificent and I can't stop smiling. He breaches. The splashes all around him glitter like diamonds. Soon another male enters the scene, and then a female.

The staff uses digital pictures to ID the orca. Looking at dorsal fins and a white pigmented patch called a "saddle patch" (used like a fingerprint) right behind the dorsal fin, they figure out that that the two males are brothers, and they are fishing with their mothers. Resident orca travel in matriarchal pods--offspring stay with their mother their whole lives. I'm touched (yes, I'm humanizing, shame on me) by their bond. Orca can live up to 95 years! The mother is about 40, big brother is 25, and little bro is 15.

We watch three more breaches from the big male showoff! (They must travel up to 23 MPH to propel that huge body--up to 11 tons--out of the water!) My favorite moment is watching his fin jet through the waves as he rushes through the water after a salmon. It's exhilarating. Mystifying. These creatures are pure majesty and grace.

We watch all day. Pop in the cabin for hot chocolate and nachos (we're on vacation, okay?) The staff comes around with photos and ID explanations and answers to any of our questions. I appreciate how they share this knowledge. How it seems they truly care about the protection and conservation of these great ocean beasts.

Heading home, we snake through the islands. We watch a young bald eagle soar over a smaller island and land in a tall pine. The sun sets, leaving a golden glow all around us.

I'm happy. Not sea sick. I close my eyes and dream of the black and white majesty.

Grace. Power. Intelligence. Family.

Pretty good role model, huh?

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