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Janet Thomas: Orca Action Month (Without End)

  • Written by Janet Thomas

It was right around this time of year, thirty years ago, when I encountered my first pod of orca whales. My partner and I were renting a house on the westside, and I had taken him to the early morning ferry. On the way back I took the Bailer Hill route along the shore. It was about seven o’clock in the morning. As I came out onto the land bank shoreline, I was stunned into stopping by seeing waters exploding with activity. I had never before seen an orca whale--even though I had previously lived for 15 years on Bainbridge Island. The orcas lived undisturbed lives back then. Marine biologists knew them; but regular folks had yet to be introduced.

That early summer morning, I was completely awestruck by the number of orcas and their excited, inter-active behavior. They leaped, and splashed, and seemed to be nuzzling one another. Later I would learn that I was likely seeing a meeting-up of two pods. There was no one but me there on the banks. I was transported by their exuberance with one another and sat for more than half-an-hour before I had to head home for a telephone meeting. That introduction to the orcas opened my heart, inspired my spirit, and completely awed my mind. Their joy and exuberance were an uplifting light of possibility in what seemed, to me personally, impossibly dark times.

Over the years, I watched the orcas regularly along their habitat just offshore the westside. They were my steady companions during my early years here when I was in recovery from extensive childhood trauma. In a way, they became soulmates. Their joyous exuberance was an ongoing reminder of life-at-large-here-and-now as I worked to heal my past so I, too, could celebrate the present. The Southern Residents were my first friends here on San Juan Island and they took care of me in too many ways to count.


Over the years, as the orcas became more and more popular in the tourism industry, their behavior changed. I no longer saw their celebratory behavior and relaxation along the shoreline. They were always on the move. As were the boats following them.

At the time, I was ignorant of the Southern Residents complete dependence upon their echo-location abilities for their underwater navigation, communication, and salmon-location. Unlike the other orca species in the Salish Sea, the Southern Residents only eat fish, primarily salmon. They do not feed upon other marine mammals as the others do. This is why the waters off the west side of San Juan Island are so important to them--it is home to salmon. Critical salmon because the Southern Residents are now facing imminent extinction.

It was my experience with, and not my knowledge about, the Southern Residents that cultivated my love for these extraordinary marine mammals. And it was this that inspired my passionate “NO!!” to the launching of Jet Ski tours from the county park on the westside. I was San Juan County Parks director and during my first winter in that job I lived in the log cabin at the county park. My instinctive “NO!” came directly and instinctively from my protective feelings for the orcas. It became a long and challenging battle between San Juan County and the Jet Ski industry. Finally, the WA State Supreme Court found in favor of the county decision to ban Jet-Skis in county waters and the life in the waters off the island was protected and saved.

Over the following years, however, the whale-watching industry grew, and the west side became a primary destination. The noise and disturbance from boat motors and engines is amplified underwater and is an immediate obstacle to the Southern Residents ability to use their echo-location abilities. They are unable to locate salmon, to navigate their way, and to communicate with their families--with whom they stay throughout their entire lives.

Years ago, I did go out on a whale-watch boat. There were about ten of us onboard and we travelled just a short distance out of the harbor and stopped. The wonderful naturalist introduced us in detail to the extraordinary beauty of our surroundings and the interdependence of life in the natural world--above and below the surface of the water. Questions were answered, stories were told, and the embrace of the natural world and the deep knowledge of the naturalist onboard brought us all together in a kind of blissful indulgence. Then suddenly, the motors roared to life, and we began to speed north. We went from relaxed and blissful comfort to holding on for dear life.

As we roared through the waters, the captain informed us that orca whales had been sighted and it would take us about 20 minutes to get to them. Everything changed. The sweet intimacy between us and the natural world we inhabit was brought to a dramatic halt. When we arrived at our destination, the boat slowed down, everyone grabbed their cameras and leaned over the edges of the boat.

Yes, the orcas were there. Yes, the peaceful collective we had shared was gone. This part of the trip was taken over by cameras and competition for close-up views. As we circled the orcas, I felt invasive and saddened. I left my camera in its bag and sat quietly thinking about all my intimate experiences with the orcas from shore in years past. On this boat, we had gone from an intimate experience with one another and the beauty of it all to an invasive experience with the orcas. Our connection to the beauty of the natural world was displaced by a photo-op reality that was far from the real reality of it all. It totally changed the experience.


Living here on San Juan Island offers us an ongoing opportunity to connect with the natural world in all its ongoing natural beauty. On my walks at Mt. Finlayson, at the Redoubt, and at all the other extraordinary places of natural beauty open to us (thank you Land Bank, Preservation Trust, our County, State and National Parks, and our Port of Friday Harbor that manages Jacksons Beach) I am so gratefully aware of how safe our private walks are and how often I encounter hikers in solitude. It is the profound peace and beauty of it all that are our greatest gifts to visitors.

Yes, whale-watching can offer that experience--I experienced it. But when it focuses only on whale-watching above all else it deprives the tourist of that which we all revere, the profound and peaceful beauty of it all.

When I was encompassed by the initial peace and beauty of it all on my first and only whale-watching experience, I thought about what a wonderful opportunity it would be for writing, reflection, and re-connection to nature. Mike Cohen, our nature guru here on the island who founded Project Nature Connect decades ago would be an ideal facilitator. www.projectnatureconnect.org Perhaps the industry could consider “Nature Tours” that focused on the natural world in ALL its natural glory. Perhaps they could be heroic and take a stance on protecting the Southern Residents by NOT including them in their venues.

At this turning time on the planet, we need love for the planet to prevail. The whale-watching industry could be critically important in this cause by expanding their focus to encompass saving life-on-earth. Sharing and saving the beauty of it all could be both a business and a benefit to nature. Yes, the whales can be part of it--but when they are ALL of it, this earth and our earth-dwellers suffer--both in and out of the waters.

Long revered by the First Peoples of the Salish Sea, the Southern Resident orcas are sacred, iconic, and symbolic. They are sentient beings facing imminent extinction if not every effort is made in every way to save them. They need our protection if they are to survive. And their survival in this time of global blindness to the value of ALL life on earth is critical. It is also symbolic of our own future on earth. As we continue to destroy the miraculous web of life that literally brought us to life, we are laying the path toward our own extinction.

Can we, as a county population, speak out and act on behalf of survival for this highly advanced species in our waters? Saving the Southern Residents from extinction is saving a future for our children--and their children. Their future is in our hands.

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” --Albert Einstein

“It is our task in our time and in our generation, to hand down undiminished to those who come after us, as was handed down to us by those who went before, the natural wealth and beauty which is ours.” --John F. Kennedy

Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 29 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

Last modified onSaturday, 05 June 2021 04:18

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