Soon after I moved to Whidbey Island in 1985 from the drier interior of Eastern Oregon, I took up whale watching. First by kayak, but longing to travel with the orca, I purchased an old inflatable lifeboat with an outboard that had sat in a garage for a long time.
Now I could accompany the orca a bit more on their journeys.
In those days, the commercial whale watching trips ran on 9-5 hours, and I would go out into Haro Strait on a summer evening as the larger pod groups were passing, then cut the engine and drift. The “poof … poof” of their breaths was mesmerizing in the fading light of the day. On one such trip, a juvenile orca was just hanging around the surface not far away and I could hear its high-pitched vocalizations — “erherrrr … erherrrrra.”
I started to imitate as loudly and as best I could. It slowing turned and, in what seemed like slow motion, floated until its head was a few feet from me. I became even more frantic in my imitations, but it listened only a few seconds before judging that I clearly didn’t get the language and slipped away.
There is something about learning more intimately of another species —- learning that the complexity of their lives rivals your own. You can begin to relate in many ways yet at the same time, as in the orca’s language, realize there is a piece of that complexity you may never fathom.
I stopped spending time with the whales. By the time the “Free Willy” movies were playing, you no longer had to spot the orca, you just looked for the cluster of 40 or more boats following them. I gave back their space I had taken, but they needed more than I could offer.
We recently learned that three adult resident orcas are missing, likely departed.
Last year, mother J35, Tahlequah, pushed her dead calf for a record 17 days. It seemed as though she realized the pod’s critical need for reproduction, making her mourning especially deep. With such an aware intelligence, I couldn’t help but wonder, was she also trying to make those humans on the boats attentive to their plight as well?
Attending the recent commemoration of the 1970-71 capture of Southern Resident Orca in Penn Cove, I found myself in an informal group discussing the plight of orca. “They are such intelligent creatures, why can’t they just change their diet and eat something besides salmon?” was spoken. “Other orca do.”
We put our best human analysis to this for a while, but then something entered my mind and silence overcame me.
Perhaps it was the intimate experiences with orca those years ago, and it was speaking, “Why can’t we just eat something besides fossil fuels?”
Donald J. Miller