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L79 Skana, Chief of the Undersea World

L. to R. Lime Kiln Light House, S. Andersson, Bill Reid Sculpture at Vancouver Aquarium, L79 Skana photo by Monika Wieland Shields.

In the late ‘’80’s and early ’90’s I would accompany my husband on his business trips to Vancouver, British Columbia. While he worked I got to play tourist in one of the most beautiful cities in the Pacific Northwest. One of my favorite places to visit was Stanley Park. According to the City of Vancouver’s website, Stanley Park is a, “magnificent green oasis in the midst of the urban landscape of Vancouver.” Outside of the Aquarium at Stanley Park stands a bronze sculpture of an orca created by Bill Reid. Reid was a Canadian, artist and regarded as one of the most significant Northwest Coast artists of the late twentieth century. The sculpture stands an impressive 5.5 meters/18.5 feet high and is a wonder to behold. The right side of the plaque on the sculpture says: Skana - The Killer Whale known by the Haida to be chief of the world beneath the sea who from his great house raised the storms of winter and brought calm to the seas of summer. He governed the mystical cycle of the salmon and was keeper of all the oceans living treasure.

Skana (pronounced skah-NAH), was also a female killer whale who lived at the Vancouver Aquarium, and one of the first killer whales captured for exhibition. She passed away on October 5th, 1980 from a fungal infection at the young age of 17. I never met that Skana and her story is one that sadly has been told in other variations for decades due to an unfortunate time in our history known as “the capture era.” You can learn more about this sad era in Sandra Pollard’s book, “Puget Sound Whales for Sale: The Fight to End Orca Hunting” (2014).

It wasn’t until decades later that I would actually see another Skana, L79, living wild and free in the Salish Sea. I had seen orcas while commuting to work by ferry near my home on an Island near Seattle. It is ALWAYS thrilling to see an orca in the wild, but my glimpses of them had been fleeting, and usually from far away. One day, while doing volunteer work for the Seattle Aquarium, watching for endangered marine mammals from shore, I saw J8 Spieden, ride the wake of a tug-boat. Though I viewed her from a great distance and through a spotting scope, I was entranced. Wow, an 80 year old whale playing in the waves got my attention! (NOAA had been on scene, and one of their biologist got a great shot that same day of J8 that made the front page of the Seattle Times).

After that day seeing J8 surfing, I read everything I could get my hands on. The following summer I jumped into the car with my favorite companion, an Australian Shepherd named Indigo, and headed for San Juan Island and the famous Lime Kiln Lighthouse. During most of my drive to the island I listened to the orcas as they squeaked, called and whistled with each other live over the hydrophone at Lime Kiln. I could not wait to get to the island and prayed I wouldn’t miss them. After a spectacular, hour-long ferry ride from Anacortes, Indigo and I caught the San Juan Transit shuttle and arrived at Lime Kiln Park. We excitedly hopped out and hit the dirt trail down to the overlook just south of the light house. As we came around a curve in the trail I could not believe my eyes! A huge, black dorsal fin appeared right off shore. Then two more right next two it. I stood mesmerized as the three orcas slowly went down and came back up in a synchronized rhythm, seemingly breathing with the the rise and fall of the Salish Sea.

I stood not far away and watched, wishing I had brought my good camera, but was just happy to be there breathing in the salty air and listening to the group in front of me as they inhaled and exhaled along. After a bit, I headed on over to the lighthouse where I met Bob Ottis and a group of naturalists working on the rocks. I had barely settled in when an orca appeared just a few feet from where I sat and startled both Indigo and me! Bob and the girls working with him laughed and introduced themselves. We talked about the group of orcas hanging out at the southend of the park. They told me they were “logging,” which is described by The Center for Whale Research on their web page as, “resting at the water surface exposing its melon, upper back and part of its dorsal fin for a period of at least 10 seconds.” In Monika Wieland Shields recent book, “Endangered Orcas: The Story of the Southern Residents,” there is a wonderful story starting on page 71 called, “Alexis’s Morning at Salmon Bank.” In this imaginative story Monika describes what it might be like to be a Southern Resident orca looking for breakfast, and how, after tired from exertion she might want to, “catch a quiet nap while she logged at the surface to rest.”

I learned the big male I first spotted was L79 Skana, and that he was with his mom, L-22 Spirit, and younger brother Solstice, L89. I remembered the Skana sculpture from my Vancouver visits so long ago and marveled at the serendipity of it.

Originally being pulled into the realm of the orca by the mythical version of Skana, and now the SR, L79 Skana, my fate was sealed. I learned about the Marine Naturalist certification program with Cindy Hansen and went on to be a dedicated advocate for the Southern Resident orcas. I now work frequently with Cindy, and Amanda at Orca Network, and also with two other wonderful organizations, Wild Orca and Sound Action.

If you also have a passion for these amazing, iconic creatures, I urge you to volunteer your time and talent with an organization doing work to save the Southern Resident orcas. You can find 17 organizations listed on the actions page of the Orca Month website along a multitude of ways to help.

1 Comment

Jun 23, 2021

Thanks for sharing Susan. You paint such a beautiful picture, I felt like I was right there. So inspiring and informative. I also would like to thank you for your hard work and dedication. The world needs more people like you! 😉☺

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