Insider Guide to the San Juans

San Juan Island's Whale Watcher

Bob Otis has been watching killer whales off the island since 1990. And he doesn't take weekends or breaks.

By Allison Williams August 1, 2014 Published in the August 2014 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Kilii Fish

Whales come and go, but on San Juan Island one thing is constant: Bob Otis is watching. Since 1990, the retired professor has recorded every single killer whale that surfaced within a half mile of the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, his post every day from May 20 to August 10. He doesn’t take weekends and he doesn’t take breaks. Now, after 24 years of watching, Otis thinks something’s wrong.

“Something’s changing out there. We’re simply not seeing the residents,” he says, referring to the J, K, and L pods that return to Haro Strait every year and are individually familiar to locals. There’s Granny, who at 103 years old has both acted as pod matriarch and appeared in a Free Willy movie; Oreo has a calf named, naturally, DoubleStuf. In the past quarter century, Otis sees an average of 80 “pass bys” per year. Last year he saw a mere 29.

“The whales are telling us something,” says Otis. What they’re saying is that there’s not enough chinook salmon in Haro Strait, he thinks, so the pods are feeding out in the ocean instead. Overfishing could drive away the San Juans’ signature animal.

Otis doesn’t come by the conclusion lightly. The animal behaviorist has emeritus status at Wisconsin’s Ripon College, but his routine has been strict since the ’90s: Exactly 83 days from 9am to 4:59pm, some 664 hours annually. Last year he compiled a 191-page report of statistical analysis on orca behavior, aircraft flyovers, and boat appearances, all while technically retired; his wife remains on their Midwest farm while he catalogs each cetacean breach and spy hop. 

 But Otis doesn’t define his watch as only peering at the water. Interns help, allowing Otis to greet tourists with his mix of midwestern hospitality and educator’s enthusiasm. Best is when the orcas linger in the kelp beds outside the lighthouse.

Inside the snug 1919 lighthouse, Otis tunes a radio to 88.1 FM, to the broadcast of underwater research hydrophones to pick out the distinctive calls. J pod “sounds like a donkey—hee-haw,” says Otis, while K pod’s sound is closer to a meow. “We call them kitty cats,” he says. He sits between a poster board displaying average pass by and boat frequency charts and the hand-illustrated whiteboard that records this year’s data. One week into observation for 2014, he’d recorded 393 people and 16 dogs—and exactly one killer whale.

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