Editor’s Note: Originally published in 2013, minor updates were made to this article in May 2017 for accuracy.
Last year 86 killer whales called Puget Sound home; this year there are 85 orcas and one unsolved mystery. As whale watching season revs up in Friday Harbor, the town also welcomes back that mystery, the skeleton of a baby orca named Sooke. When her remains went on display in February, she became a memorial.
People on San Juan Island recognize local whales like they might the neighborhood dogs: There’s old Granny, a 100-year-old whale who appeared in Free Willy, and Oreo, who birthed calves named Cookie and DoubleStuf. Sooke, a three-year-old, had the formal designation L-112. “She was a little bundle of energy and affection, always rubbing up on her mom, just like the perfect baby,” says local zoologist Ken Balcomb, who has studied killer whales for 49 years.
Before she died, the 12-foot Sooke and the rest of the J, K, and L orca pods swam as far south as Northern California for the winter, returning to summer in the salmon-rich waters of Puget Sound. Whale watching excursions in Friday Harbor usually begin in April, when the postcard-ready town is still in a subdued shoulder season. Ferries and floatplanes still make regular arrivals in the bean-shaped harbor, but there’s no breakfast line at the greasy spoon Rocky Bay Cafe, and, on the bluffs overlooking the water, the upscale boutique hotels Friday Harbor House and Island Inn at 123 West offer off-peak rates.
An informal network of excursion operators, fishermen, and tugboat captains keeps track of the three resident pods via radio and email. But even that daisy chain of old salts can’t always pinpoint the orcas in the Salish Sea; most days Brian Goodremont, owner of San Juan Outfitters and San Juan Safaris, admits he leaves the docks without knowing exactly where he’s going. He follows his gut, which after 15 years is usually right: The San Juan Outfitters boat finds an orca pod in nine out of
10 trips (or, rarely, minke, gray, or humpback whales) in peak months from May to September. Most companies boast a similar common success rate.
The boats, holding 6, 40, or even 150 sightseers, are required by law to stay 200 yards from whales. They’ll motor in smooth seas—operators say seasickness is rare—south to Deception Pass or west near Victoria, BC, able to visit Canadian waters thanks to very old international treaties. Most are staffed with naturalists, and most serve hot drinks.
When the orcas are hunting for fish, the black dorsal fins “are zigging and zagging,” says Goodremont, who can spot a black triangle from miles away. Sometimes they breach, belly up.
He prefers the two-tone animals at rest, when as many as 15 or 20 fins break
the surface together in regular rhythm.
Greenpeace introduced occasional San Juan whale watching tours in the 1980s using a SeaScout ship, but the biggest boom came with a Michael Jackson soundtrack: the 1993 kid’s flick Free Willy (the sequel was even filmed around San Juan Island). Goodremont calls whale watching “as unique an intersection with wildlife that you can have in our lifetime.”
For Donna Sandstrom, whale watching is tinged with anxiety; she knows the orcas’ days are numbered due to toxic waters and depleted salmon. “If their population trends don’t improve, in 100 years they could disappear completely from this area, where they’ve been for millions of years,” she says.
That’s why Sandstrom advocates land-based whale watching with her Whale Trail, a series of viewpoints from Point Defiance to La Push. Interpretive panels and “last known sighting” reports are posted next to a lighthouse in Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island, where Sandstrom claims the whale watching rivals the boatbound kind and is even less intrusive. “Be ready to invest a couple hours; bring binoculars,” she says—on summer days, the whales can pass more than once.
There’s also prime view space in San Juan Island National Historical Park, boasting six miles of coastline on the island’s hooked southern end. The space is infamous for hosting a near-war between U.S. and Great Britain over a pig in 1859 (no one, save the pig, was harmed). Shore watchers can be rewarded with whale encounters as close as 20 feet, much more immediate than the wide berth kept by boats.
Sometimes, says Sandstrom, you can peer off Lime Kiln’s cliffs to see the orcas “kelping,” or winding through the kelp beds. “Whales are very tactile,” she says. “I imagine it feels like going through silk scarves.”
But this year, L-112—Sooke—won’t be swimming with her pod. Her body washed up on Long Beach in early 2012, the victim of some blunt force trauma that didn’t leave external wounds. -Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, calls the injury “consistent with high-powered sonar or explosion”—like, say, classified naval tests.
“I don’t expect to see anything official” from the Americans or Canadians, Balcomb says, himself a Navy vet. “I’m currently optimistic that we’ll have some whales to watch 20 or 30 years, but we’re having a serious problem with juvenile survival.”
But the Whale Museum he founded in downtown Friday Harbor had a new vision for Sooke; an intact orca body is a rare find. After scientists took samples and did an MRI of her head, the carcass went to local Albert Shepard, a whale skeleton specialist. The cleaning process was as natural as he could make it; bones were cleaned by flesh-eating bugs rather than washed in solvents.
“It makes sense to take her back to nature,” says Shepard, who then rebuilt Sooke largely without glue and with the help of Friday Harbor visual artist Matthew Gray Palmer. “She’s kind of bound together with nuts and screws, lashed together with string, like a traditional kayak.”
The waterfront Whale Museum sits in the town’s former Oddfellows Hall, a community space since 1892. Exhibits chronicle the area’s long history with cetaceans, emphasizing conservation and stewardship. Sooke has center stage, meticulously positioned and -mirrored by Palmer’s replica of her living shape.
In the course of the long weeks it took to reform Sooke, Shepard was reverent with the half-built skeleton. “I’d turn off all the main lights and just sit and look at her form,” he says. Part engineer and part undertaker, Shepard calls himself a curator: “Maybe it means to cure, to preserve—maybe my job is to conserve curiosity.”
Sooke, once the “little bundle of energy and affection,” is now a teaching tool for the schoolchildren that regularly flood the Whale Museum. Just outside, her mother, sister, and the rest of L pod returned to Puget Sound this year to spend the summer tailed by whale watching captains and boatfuls of eager eyes. As much as she can be, Sooke is home.