It was July 5th, 2019; I embarked on one heck of a last-minute adventure, ferrying over to Friday Harbor on a holiday weekend. I was anxiously awaiting the offloading of vehicles knowing Southern Residents were on the other side of the island and had been for quite a while. They could decide to move away from San Juan at any moment. Thinking about that possibility while knowing I was dead last in line to disembark had my anxiety running high. Things couldn’t move fast enough!
A couple hours before, Southern Resident vocalizations had been picked up on Lime Kiln’s underwater hydrophone. It was members of J Pod and K Pod! I was lying in bed listening to their excited chatter through my phone, wishing I could be there. I started reading comments on a sightings thread about their behavior-they were “west side shuffling,” meaning meandering up and down the west side of San Juan Island. In that 15 minutes of wishing and reading, I made a split-second decision: I was going to try to get over there in time to see them for myself. I didn’t know if I’d successfully get my car on the ferry, or get home later that night, but something told me I had to try.
When I finally drove off the ferry, I bee-lined it to the west side to find the only open parking spot left along Land Bank, a publicly accessible area of bluffs that overlook Haro Strait just shy of Lime Kiln Lighthouse. I barely had my car pulled in, in park, and seatbelt off before I saw the first group of fins. They were RIGHT offshore. I practically sprinted my way down the side of the sloping bluff, camera in hand, in time to watch as a steady parade of orcas went by, heading north. I’d counted maybe 20 or so, but there could have been more—I was late to the party!
The first few orcas I spotted were mostly females and younger whales. But the second group that came by was made up entirely of both adult and immature males. There were tall, sturdy-seeming dorsal fins in the mix, along with wavier, shorter ones—the kind that are just starting to straighten out along the trailing edge as they grow larger. The adult males seemed to have an overall air of poise about them, while some of the immature and juvenile males seemed to be more playfully tagging along behind. I imagined it would be like if a grown orca had kid brothers or kid cousins. But then there was one male who appeared to be having the time of his life—K34 Cali. Spyhops and tail slaps and partial breaches—oh my! Never had I ever seen so much behavioral action in one encounter. This giant goofball instantly had my heart. His joy was palpable. It made you want to dive in and join him!
I remember overhearing another onlooker use the term “boys club” as this group continued by. It did truly seem like one exclusive pod. Some males were content with traveling at a leisurely pace, keeping up with the group. And then there was Cali, again. He began randomly rolling to one side to slap the surface with his pec fins every few surfaces. At one point, he’d riled up two of the juvenile males, and in response, they came porpoising up out of the water, creating spray on either side of their bodies. It seemed the young ones would not be outdone on the splash factor. Suddenly, Cali attempted a partial breach, the first two-thirds of his body projected upward, as if in a spyhop, but he quickly leaned left and came crashing back down. A large, foamy ring was left in the place where he disappeared back under the surface. Another orca spyhopped, looking around at their surroundings before moving on. Was it possible they aware of the mostly female, human fan club that had formed on the bluff just above them? Could they hear our excitement and “oohs” and “ahhhs”? Could the orcas be showing off? I chuckle just thinking about it, now. More than likely they were overjoyed just to be in each other’s company, but it was fun imagining they were egging us all on and soaking up the adoration.
As the group continued north, one of the leading males began to bring his large tail flukes up above the water and crash them back down to the surface. I could literally feel the reverberation from the percussive slapping sounds that this behavior resulted in. This was a new way I was experiencing the Southern Residents. No wonder it’s thought they can communicate things in this manner. I sure felt something, and I don’t hesitate to say it felt jovial. My money was on that crazy Cali again, but I’d not sited any distinguishing markings to properly identify him.
Some of these whales decided to hook it right into Deadman’s Cove for a sidebar foray. Others began moving along the seawall on the south side of Lime Kiln State Park, still trending north. They were moving farther away from the bluff I was standing on, but I was fixated. They all meandered a bit before eventually changing course, dazzling the large crowd that had formed to watch them with other social behaviors, and surprising some kayakers that were rafted up tightly to shore. Some orcas from this group kept trending north, but others turned around and began heading back toward the bluff I was viewing from. In anticipation, I crept as far down the bluff as I could physically go and waited.
At that point, the group heading back in my direction submerged themselves. I waited to see where they might reappear, but it seemed like they were spending more time under water. Suddenly, and without warning, the first big “whoosh” broke the surface, heading right for me, and again it was K34 Cali, not even 50 yards out.
Where did you come from? I thought, not seeing him in the original group that turned to come back. Sneaky orca.
Again, he seemed to exuberantly enjoy playing near the surface. At one point he surfaced among the bull kelp, draping himself in it. Slick, streaming strands flowed out behind him, caught on either side of his dorsal fin. He brought his massive tail flukes up above the surface, as if to uncoil the slimy greens from his body before positioning himself to dive under the surface. I thought that would be the last I’d see of him that close, but he surfaced one more time, just below the bluff I was standing on. Had I been lower, I’d have felt the misty exhalation on my skin. I had never been this close to a wild whale before this, and even knowing what I know about orcas, was just utterly blown away by his sheer size, the textures of his skin, the distinctions in his big, beautiful, open saddle patch, and the goofy grace at which he expertly cut through the water. I felt like I was watching poetry I could never accurately describe to someone who didn’t see it for themselves.
The whole experience was 45 minutes. And every second that went by was 100% worth the craziness and intensity of trying to get to San Juan Island to be part of their lives, that day. I’d first come to know, respect, admire, and appreciate the Southern Residents through J17 Princess Angeline, but July 5th, 2019, I fell head over heels for the goofy, outside-the-box, lover of life, K34 Cali. I’m so grateful for the exhilaration in those moments he gave me, and even more grateful for the chuckles and smiles he still gives me as I recall that encounter, and imagine the splashing and thrashing he’s probably doing, right now, somewhere out in the big blue beyond.