Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why We Live Here: Orca Watching in Puget Sound

Orcas in central Puget Sound, October 8, 2012. Photo by Alisa Lemire Brooks.
One of the many things I love about living here in the Pacific Northwest is how the stunning beauty and wonder of the natural world overlaps with urban life, often without much warning. Like sighting orcas in Puget Sound from a downtown Seattle highrise, as many did yesterday. And how these thrills bring people together.

After getting a text alert from my sister mid-morning that orcas were spotted heading south in Puget Sound, I grabbed my binoculars, hopped in the car, and sped (yes, broke the speed limit) to Carkeek Park near my home. While I'm a native-born Seattleite and lived here most of my life, these magnificent marine mammals have eluded me in my home waters. 

Until yesterday.

It started with a series of updates on the Orca Network's Facebook page: 

"At least seven orcas were seen by the morning sun at 9 am in Admiralty Inlet, heading south between Mutiny Bay and Foulweather Bluff, headed toward Point No Point."

Mother orca with baby, Puget Sound, October 8, 2012. Photo by Alisa Lemire Brooks.

My sis texted me when local Seattle TV stations shared footage of a "superpod" being VERY active near Point No Point and continuing south. A superpod no less! Aerial footage from a chopper showed orcas arcing up out of the water, dorsal fins pointing high, and diving back under in huge splashes. Awesome.

As I parked at the bluff overlooking the Sound at Carkeek, I jumped out of the car and breathlessly asked the guy sitting on the bench:

"Have you seen the orcas yet?"

He hadn't and didn't even know to look for them, but Jeremy and I ended up sharing my binoculars for the next 40 minutes as we spotted many orcas spouting, breaching, and splashing several miles across the Sound between Kingston and Bainbridge Island.

Seasoned orca watchers Alisa and Ed showed up soon after me, with more expensive binoculars in hand. These friendly folks pointed out things I wouldn't have noticed.

"Adult male breaching.  Mother with baby just south of the white sailboat off Indianola. Several now heading into Port Madison."  

Puget Sound orcas with Edmonds-Kingston ferry in distance. Photo by Alisa Lemire Brooks.
  As Ed rattled off these sightings, Alisa was sending sighting updates to the Orca Network FaceBook page. They had started up north in Edmonds earlier in the morning, where they watched the orcas near the ferry terminal before heading south.

I followed Ed and Alisa down to Golden Gardens, a few miles south and jutting farther west into Puget Sound. There in the golden glow of an unseasonably sunny and mild October afternoon, we watched more orcas put on a show that no doubt thrilled hundreds or thousands of us watching from the land and boats.  

As a female breached much closer to us than the others, I knew the spectacular image would be seared in my memory forever. The sense of awe and wonder surging through me felt just like each of those shooting stars I saw last summer.

October 1, 2012. Photo by Alisa Lemire Brooks.
In addition to a thrill of a lifetime to see these orcas near my home, what will stay with me is the friendliness of the several people I met.  

Forget the so-called Seattle Freeze.  Everyone was as excited and happy as a kid to be in the presence of our resident orcas making an unusual trip this far south.  Heck, I even passed out my business cards and learned about a new restaurant that Brian hopes to open in Ballard next year. Most of us figured out our two to three degrees of separation.

As they used to say, there's only a thousand real people in Seattle and we all know each other.  There's less than 90 resident orcas in Puget Sound, and they no doubt all know each other, too.

Orca off Alki Point, October 8, 2012. Photo by Christina Watson.

How about you? Did you see the orcas yesterday? If not, I hope you're able to see them soon. Check out the Orca Network regularly for sightings.

How to Help
The Puget Sound orcas are endangered and need our help. As of May 2012, the population of the endangered southern resident orcas was 88, 26 in J pod, 20 in K pod, and 42 in L pod. Here's a link to information on the National Marine Fisheries Service Orca Recovery Plan. It remains to be seen if, through our efforts, the population can be stabilized to a sustainable level.  But think about donating your time and $$ to organizations such as the Orca Network, which is dedicated to raising awareness of Pacific Northwest whales and the importance of providing them healthy and safe habitats.


Ingunn said...

Amazing! I've never seen them outside of Sea World (ugh) - next year I'll either have to go on a cruise or a kayaking trip and try to see an Orca up close!

Ingunn said...

Oh, and I've never experience the Seattle Freeze...but then again, I'm Norwegian - maybe that's just what I'm used to. :o)

jill said...

Hey Ingunn! You might not have to wait until next year to see the orcas. check out the Orca Network on FB for recent sightings. BTW, glad you haven't felt the "freeze." And my great-great grandfather was the very first Norwegian settler in all of Seattle!

Ingunn said...

That's so cool - I should really look into the Norwegian history of Seattle. Is there any info about him online?

We're currently watching a reality show called Alt for Norge where Norwegian-Americans compete to get to meet their Norwegian relatives (it's hilarious), and every season there's a contestant from Seattle.

jill said...

Ingunn, is that show a Norwegian production? My great-great grandfather was Hans Martin Hanson, I blogged a bit about the Seattle family history earlier this year. http://pacificnwseasons.blogspot.com/search/label/Seattle. Yes he's noted for being one of the early owners of Alki Point.

A Swedish relative contacted my brother recently (maternal grandmother's family) but can't imagine it would be easy to trace the Norwegian side that far back...

Unknown said...

thanks, Jill! Nice article about a great experience to have......Janet

Ed said...

Awesome! Thanks for the heads up I didn't know they were viewable from shore this time of year. One of my favorite things to do is whale watch...I will have to keep an eye on the Orca Network from now on

JGT said...

Cool Jill! Thanks again for the inspiration!

camelama said...

Great photos! Isn't it just so incredibly mind-blowing to see these beasts, with your feet planted on solid ground?!? It feels like a gift every time it happens! First for me was seeing them off Lime Kiln park out in the San Juans. (And hey, pass along the new Ballard restaurant tip when you get it! heh)

martha said...

How exciting! Orcas, up close and personal.

Anne said...

Jill! Thanks for the photos, do you know which pod this is?

My experience with whales was about 15 years ago in Bajia de Magdalena where the grays go to have their calves. Looking down over the side of my panga and seeing a giant eyeball looking at me about a foot under the water, knowing she could rise up and spill our boat over, and knowing she wouldn't, was the thrill of a lifetime. I think someday we will be able to communicate with them, but probably not in my lifetime.

jill said...

Janet, thanks!

Ed, yes, check the Orca Network!

Camelama, yes, a gift to see the whales is a great description. Have seen them from Lime Kiln off in the distance and on BC ferries, but never in Seattle. BTW yes, Brian had an interesting story, theme would be southern Indian food based on his family history.

Martha, was splendid!

Anne, they think there were members of all the resident pods hanging out together that day. Wow, what an experience in Mexico!

Anonymous said...

Totally awesome!