By Andrea Brown
The Daily Herald
Little Patch is back in the hood.
He showed up in January.
He and a few of his fellow whales have been sighted around Hat Island and beyond.
“It has been an odd year for gray whales,” said Susan Berta, Orca Network co-founder. “They’ve come back a little earlier. We’ve had a few other gray whales that kind of hung around all year.”
Whales are assigned both a name and a number.
Little Patch, aka No. 53, has a small white spot toward the back of his dorsal ridge.
“There’s one called Patch that has a big white spot on it,” Berta said.
The underside of their flukes during a dive is another way to identify a whale.
Want to figure out who’s who and what’s what in our sea of marine mammals?
In partnership with Cascadia Research, a guidebook of local grays is available online and at Orca Network’s Langley Whale Center.
“It’s not just the gray whales,” Berta said. “We get orcas and we’ve been having more humpbacks show up.”
The center in downtown Langley is a physical presence to the Freeland-based Orca Network, started 20 years ago by Berta and her husband, Howard Garrett. Other projects are the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Whale Sighting Network with 15,000 members, and a campaign to retire Lolita from her performing pen at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita was captured in 1970 in the Salish Sea to be an entertainer.
If you aren’t doing anything next week — and have $3,500 — there are spaces available on the Orca Network’s whale-seeing trip to San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, Mexico.
Or you can just visit the whale center.
Admission is free. The center is funded by grants, memberships, a donation jar and the gift shop. It has two paid workers and numerous volunteers.
The center started small in 2014 and has changed locations twice, all on Anthes Avenue near the waterfront.
The quaint exterior belies what’s inside: skulls, pelts, baleen, bones, barnacles, whale lice and a huge whale jaw bone. There’s a lending library and a kids room. An ocean listening exhibit is inside an old wooden telephone booth. A map with sticky notes shows recent sightings.
Items for sale include toys, DVDs, local art, shirts and jewelry, such as earrings made from cereal boxes into stylish shapes of sea creatures and birds.
“The gift shop brings in people who might go, ‘Oh, here’s a neat shop.’ And then they’ll realize there’s all these exhibits and they start learning about whales,” Berta said.
“There are some people who are born whale nerds. Three years old and they will come in and they already know a bunch of stuff about whales.”
Greenbank resident Margaret Marshall is mesmerized every time.
“Anyone I bring to the island, this is my No. 1 destination,” she said. “You can learn in an immersive way. I was amazed to get to touch a sea otter pelt. In one square inch there are a million hairs.”
Hearing a school of fish in the listening booth was another thrill.
Marshall recently began as a docent. She also leads the youth activity held on the third Wednesday of the month.
The whaledom extends beyond the center.
At the Welcome the Whales event in April, people dress up as whales and other marine life and parade through town.
The city is leaning into its whale ways.
“We installed a whale bell at the park they now call Whale Bell Park,” Berta said. “We put up interpretive signs about the different kinds of marine mammals you can see.”
The bell is rung when a whale is sighted.
False alarms aren’t tolerated.
“People will come running out of stores and kind of confront them if there isn’t really a whale,” Berta said. “There’s that peer pressure. We don’t joke around about our whales here.”
For a whale of a good time
Langley Whale Center is at 105 Anthes Ave., Langley.
The center is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
n For information, 360-221-7505 or www.orcanetwork.org