Hometown Hero

Hometown heroes Howard Garrett and Susan Berta relax on the couch of their Greenbank home with their dog Sweetpea. - Brian Kelly
Hometown heroes Howard Garrett and Susan Berta relax on the couch of their Greenbank home with their dog Sweetpea.
— image credit: Brian Kelly

He could see the love and respect in her eyes, as she gingerly and ever so lovingly helped to move a lifeless Dalls porpoise from Double Bluff Beach for fisheries experts to study.

“Even though Hero Susan Berta’s back was in pain, her love for these beautiful animals never ceases for Susan and her husband, Hero Howard Garrett. For their hearts are as large as the whales themselves,” says “Mr. Creosote” of Puget Sound, Tony Frantz.

They will do anything for their love for these cetaceans, writes volunteer Donna Keeler. Garrett’s desire to help “free Lolita,” the orca captured in Penn Cove 36 years ago, compelled him to move to Miami for two years to garner more support. “Living on very little, Howie spent those years writing letters, fundraising, and organizing volunteers. Susan worked tirelessly here in the Northwest to support Howie.”

“Together (but physically apart) they motivated tens of thousands of children and adults across the country to participate in the Free Lolita Movement,” Keeler continues.

Unfortunately, at the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita remains in the undersized tank, Keeler says, but Garrett and Berta faithfully continue to fight for her freedom.

“Susan and Howard can bring out the very best in people,” says Mary Jo Adams, volunteer Beach Watcher.

“Together they founded the Orca Network where their love and respect for cetaceans is evident daily. It’s hard to believe how anyone can motivate people to leave their comfortable warm homes to go out on a cold rainy icy winter morning on the beach to retrieve kidneys and other organs from a dead and downright stinky sea lion. But together with Susan and Howard, that’s one of the things we do, so that the animals can be tested to see if they suffered from leptospirosis.”

They are not only Hometown Heroes but international heroes, explains Brenda Peterson, author of several mammalian books. “Their rigorous and heart felt work is read by conservationists in places like China and New Zealand.”

Education about these mammals is another passion for these two.

“The Orca Network is an incredible idea. It’s citizen science at its best, with many eyes and ears reporting on the whereabouts of whales, contributing really valuable data, at no cost to the scientists who use it. And the stories are like chapters in a book. Susan and Howard just give and give and create a fun volunteer atmosphere, and can make you laugh till you snort,” explains Cheryl Bradkin, quilter and environmental volunteer.

Their passion for whales began decades before.

Fifteen years ago in the Pacific Ocean, Berta took a sailing trip that included scooping up humpback whale poop to bring back for testing.

“I remember being about 50 feet from the whales feeding in their ‘bubble net.’ We could feel their steamy breath,” She says.

From that moment she’s been drawn to help, and to speak on behalf, of these ocean giants.

Garrett’s passion began 25 years ago off the San Juan Islands, helping his brother with whale research.

“First my fascination for whales lived in my head,” he says. “But then their friendly curiosity for us humans, and watching how they care for their families, soon got to my heart. Their intelligence makes them see something in us they connect with. They could easily kill us, but they choose not to.”

He suggests we look down at the vast unexplored sea, rather than always looking up to the stars for intelligent life.

Berta recalls an illustration that shows how the whales connect with humans. “Orcas have an uncanny way of connecting with us at a deep, spiritual level — knowing what we are thinking and feeling. There was a ceremony on San Juan Island for a whale who died, named Ralph (from the J pod). The rest of the J pod showed up exactly on time for the ceremony, breaching repeatedly while Orca advocate Ralph Munro gave a touching speech in honor of his namesake whale. This is one of many such examples.”

Garrett remarks, “We had in the past perceived a huge gap between animals and humans, but some people through education are bridging that gap. We are finding how much we are alike. I think that’s why these animals don’t hurt us, and why they come to greet us in our boats. They instinctively know when we are helping them, for instance when one gets stuck in a fisherman’s net, the whales hold still while we set them free.”

Garrett and Berta’s home and office is a very small modest home and office. It is decorated in a whale theme of whale photos, whale art, whale tapestries and whale lights. You will experience a lot of fun and laughter in their home, as well as love for animals. Their cat walks through the small cozy living room, while their black Labrador mix, “Sweetpea” lies next to you on the couch his head on your lap. Berta brings out some homemade sticky rice with shrimp wrapped in seaweed, and some treats for Sweetpea.

Each has compassion for all of life. They both know the heartbreak of losing loved ones.

A framed picture of Garrett’s grandson, Cody, and his only child, Jeremy, is prominently placed on their wall. However this photo brings out his deepest sadness, as Jeremy passed away suddenly in the year 2000.

“An opportunity lost,” he says slowly, as his eyes penetrate the photo.

Each has also lost a sibling, another most difficult passing in each of their lives.

Asking the two to share about their upbringing, Berta explains her family was loving and supportive. Garrett had a different upbringing experience.

“My brothers and I were raised ‘feral’ really. Our dad left early on, and our mother was a single mom and a lounge musician. She worked all night, and slept all day. We never had anyone to show a report card to, or tell us when to get home at night. We made up our own rules as we went, and learned to navigate the world on our own.”

Remembering back, he says they didn’t always make such great choices either.

“The orcas are like their children, and they are very dedicated loving parents,” say Orca board volunteers Dave and Karen Anderson. “There are virtually no limits to the personal sacrifices they make for them.”

To support their love of whales, Garrett has his day job, working at the Coupeville Post Office. But his heart is always with Susan and the network’s whale projects, and the volunteers they say that they are so grateful to be part of.

Berta’s and Garrett’s deep love for animals spills over near and far.

“Thank God for people like Susan and Howie,” says former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, “They along with all of their volunteers are a tremendous asset to our state of Washington both in their education and protection. Through their love, work, and commitments we have learned and gathered an immense wealth of data and knowledge that help us to protect endangered orcas as well as all marine life.”

Berta and Garrett’s life can remind us to ask ourselves what is it we do for love?

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