Breach Bums

You Don’t Have to Leave Shore to Spot an Orca in Seattle

The Orca Network’s devotees ground the whale-watching game.

By Benjamin Cassidy August 3, 2020 Published in the July/August 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Sometimes, you can get closest to an orca by land.

Rachel Haight scampers up the dock, camera in hand, head on a swivel. For a couple seconds, Holmes Harbor ripples around her. Seagulls squawk. Then, an aquatic explosion of the kind that drew the Nebraska native to the Puget Sound region years ago: A pool noodle’s length from Haight’s right foot, an orca surfaces and spouts a geyser-like column of vapor. A moment later, a different dorsal fin dips below the wooden planks. As many as eight killer whales will swim by on this April afternoon, including Tl’uk, a rare white orca whose passage marks the first big splash of the spring whale sighting season.

Increasingly, the thrill of shore-based whale watching is proximity. Haight never would have come this close to the transient T46B and T65A pods in a boat. Marine authorities have generally required more than a football field of distance between vessels and whales, but Washington laws are even stricter now. Last year, facing calls to temporarily ban whale watching tours, governor Jay Inslee signed a bill that increased the buffer boats must give endangered southern resident orcas to echolocate Chinook salmon. Factor in the ease of social distancing on sand, and land-bound whale sighting—traditionally a pursuit for only the most patient marine observers—has all the elements of a prime pandemic pastime.

In places like West Seattle and Whidbey Island, it’s already pretty popular. The Orca Network, an educational nonprofit that runs Langley Whale Center, delivers the latest marine life reports from the Puget Sound to more than 15,000 email inboxes and over 161,000 Facebook followers. This fervent Whale Sighting Network isn’t just a coastal cabal for seasoned watchers; newcomers regularly submit write-ups of grays and humpbacks and southern residents. Volunteers like Haight confirm these sightings via photograph and video. They don’t judge. “Even if you think it’s a log,” says Haight, “we’d rather check up on a potential whale sighting than miss out.”

Susan Berta and Howard Garrett founded the network after the couple settled on Whidbey Island in the late 1990s. During environmental volunteer work at Admiralty Head Lighthouse, Berta realized she could spy orcas from her perch overlooking the Salish Sea. She would relay her reports to Howard’s brother, Center for Whale Research founder Kenneth C. Balcomb, who then connected Berta with a bunch of rapt researchers. The sighting network was thus born—as was its earliest informant’s addiction to scanning the sea for a breach. “I don’t know what it does to us,” Berta says, “but it changes a lot of people.”

Haight would agree. When the Oak Harbor resident was 14, she spotted her first orca on a trip from Omaha to the San Juans. She vowed to move to Washington one day, just so she could see the whales. Onshore, offshore—it didn’t matter to her.

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