As if they knew that the weekend that will celebrate them is upon us, the whales in Saratoga passage have put in overtime lately.
They pose for pictures, splashing and rolling near the beaches, and have been serving as Whidbey’s unique ambassadors of spring.
The 10th annual Welcome the Whales Festival in Langley honors the arrival of resident gray whales to Whidbey Island and is set for Saturday, April 20 and Sunday, April 21.
“It is wonderful to see the event continue and grow, and receive more interest and support from the Langley and Whidbey Island communities,” said Susan Berta of the Orca Network.
“Having this special population of gray whales come and visit our waters every spring is truly an amazing thing — I don’t know of anywhere else where such a small sub-population regularly visits the same place every year for several months during the larger annual migration,” she said.
In greater Puget Sound, there are 12 to 50 grays spotted by watchers each year. Along the Pacific Coast is a population of 250 gray whales known as the Pacific Northwest feeding aggregation.
And this weekend those whales will be celebrated right here in Langley — for the first time for two days in a row.
“This year we have some exciting additions to the celebration in Whale Bell park after the parade — a community photo will be taken at the end of the parade, then we’ll head down to the water hopefully to watch some whales for a blessing by Windwalker Taibi, two songs by Rainey, followed by several Dances of Universal Peace. Then we have Dr. Sue Moore giving her presentation ‘Gray Whales as Sentinels of Climate Change’ at the Langley Methodist Church,” Berta said.
A full schedule of events leads up to the weekend, but the excitement will mount on Saturday with the Welcome the Whales parade in downtown Langley.
The day will start at 11 a.m. with educational displays, activities, costume making and presentations.
Take part in hands-on educational displays, costume-making and kids activities at Langley United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall at Third Street and Anthes Avenue, beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Staging for the “critter parade” begins at 1 p.m. at Anthes Avenue and Second Street in Langley. The parade will begin at 1:30 p.m. going up Second Street and down First Street, and end at the Langley Waterfront Park with a blessing for the whales, followed by music and a celebration on the beach, while watching for gray whales in Saratoga Passage.
From 3 to 5 p.m., presentations will be held at the United Methodist Church, with Orca Network providing an update on North Puget Sound gray whales and sharing slides of a recent trip to San Ignacio Lagoon. Featured speaker Dr. Sue Moore, biological oceanographer with NOAA/Fisheries Office of Science & Technology, will follow with “Gray Whales as Sentinels of Climate Change.” Moore has 35 years of research experience focused on the ecology, bioacoustics and natural history of whales and dolphins, with much of her work directed towards cetaceans in the Pacific Arctic region.
The fun continues Sunday with an Orca Network cruise aboard the Mystic Sea departing from the Langley Marina at 11:30 a.m. and returning at 2:30 p.m. Orca Network staff and naturalists on board will share knowledge about gray whales and other marine mammals. A glass of “Orca Wine” is included in the ticket cost of $65 for adults; the cost for children is $45. Proceeds from the whale watch cruise support Orca Network programs and educational activities. Tickets must be purchased in advance at: http://shop.orcanetwork.org/category_s/32.htm.
The festival is the highlight of what has been a busy whale season on the island.
“It has been very fulfilling to see the interest in these whales grow over the years — as our Whale Sighting Network has expanded, and word has spread about the gray whales’ annual visits, we have seen more people visiting Whidbey Island to try to catch a glimpse of the whales, and more interest from those of us lucky enough to live on Whidbey Island,” Berta said.
“We’ve had many fantastic reports of the whales this year, some days as many as eight different whales have been observed. Each whale report we receive adds to the overall picture of how these gray whales are making their living in Saratoga Passage, and adding to the knowledge base of researchers studying the whales,” she added.
The whale bell at Langley’s Hladky Park off Anthes Avenue and First Street rang quite frequently this season when “Patch” the whale, who is the mascot of the whale weekend, or one of his aquatic friends swim by.
Patch is also known by whale watchers of Puget Sound as No. 49 and is part of a small group of resident gray whales that usually arrives in the region in early March. He was first identified by Cascadia Research of Olympia in our local waters in 1991 and is a favorite of many local whale watchers, as he is easily identifiable by the large white patch on his right side, back toward his flukes, as well as white patches on the underside of his flukes. Patch and the pod hang around to feed on ghost shrimp along the mud shores of Saratoga Passage until the end of May or early June.
Welcome the Whales Festival and activities are sponsored by the Orca Network, Homeplace Special Care and Langley Chamber of Commerce.
For more information, go to www.orcanetwork.org/news/events.html or www.visitlangley.com.