We asked CWR Members and supporters to share a short story about a special whale, encounter, or friendship that developed from a shared passion for whales. We are very grateful to those who shared their stories. This is what they wrote (listed in the order that we received them).
The Whale. The Legend. J1 “Ruffles”. He was quite likely the most famous and well-known wild orca in the world, next to Keiko. In front of thousands of adoring fans, he would slowly surface and then just as slowly disappear beneath the water again, as if he knew how impressive that wavy dorsal fin was. People from all over the world saw him and loved him, but one admirer in particular remains etched in my memory.
Danny (name changed for privacy) was a special needs man who was a passenger on our whale watch boat at least once a year. He loved us, and he loved Ruffles. Each time he walked on the dock to start the trip, he would embrace all of us in a huge bear hug so strong we would have to hang on to each other to keep from falling in the water. We adored him. And we knew that whenever he was with us, we were going to have a fantastic day with J Pod. Because Danny had a special connection with Ruffles that was difficult to comprehend. I’ll never forget the day we were watching J Pod traveling close to shore off Henry Island. Ruffles left the group and did a complete circle around us. He surfaced four or five times, always right next to Danny, who was laughing gleefully as he followed his whale around the boat. After Ruffles had visited his friend, he returned to Granny and the rest of the pod close to shore, and continued on his way.
My last year working on the boat, the last day I saw Danny, we had a report of the L12s at Salmon Bank while J pod had headed north to the Fraser River the previous day. We had a choice to make – go for the sure thing or take the chance that J Pod would be headed back down Rosario Strait, which they often did in those days. It was an easy decision – Danny was on the boat. We took the chance and of course J Pod was there, as we knew they would be. And as he had done so many times over the years, Ruffles left the group and surfaced right where Danny was standing. It was a wonderful last memory of the strange and beautiful relationship between the two of them. I can’t begin to understand or explain the connection, and maybe I don’t want to. Maybe it’s enough just to know that it existed, and to remember the joy it brought to a friend.
My whale love story is more than skin deep and will be never-ending! My first tattoo was an Orca with the words "Swim Free." Every time I go whale watching, I hold the high hope that I will encounter them swimming free! I've been lucky to witness the awesomeness of humpbacks, fin whales, and grey whales—however, killer whales are my most favorite, and I will keep my love story alive with the hope of someday experiencing them! I met Captain James Mead Maya in 2016 in-person after following him on Facebook for a couple of years. I found him after J32 passed away, and he posted a pic of her...breaching, of course, and somebody shared it.
In 2016, during my annual stay on SJI, I went out with him on his boat, the Peregrine. I had the most epic whale watching experience and the best time learning about his life. Ever since then, I've made it a point to book a trip with him. Every time I leave, it's bittersweet because I know it will be another year until we get to spend time again. His friendship, his open heart, his love for nature, and his warmth for the people he meets are so inspiring. Covid has made it impossible to travel this year and the last, but I can't wait to get on the boat with him again next year and listen to his stories.
My father from St. Louis, Jack Korn, instilled in his six children the love of science and the natural world. He had glaucoma most of his life and had very limited vision however was determined to try and see the Orcas on our visit to San Juan Island. We took him out on three whale watches. He could barely see them on the first two trips; on our final trip, it was like the Universe shined down upon him. We were out near Lighthouse Point and first J pod, then L, then K showed up breaching, tail slapping, pec fin slapping, spy hopping literally right in front of his eyes on the back of the boat, creating one of the most incredible Super pods I have seen in my 30 years of whale watching.
At least three times a year, he would share the story with extended family and anyone willing to listen. I now have the memory of the biggest grin on his face, excited exclamations he made during that Superpod, and the gleam that was in his eyes EVERY time he shared the story.
I was working Soundwatch on a 4th of July. We were counting boats, and everything was out there; a purse seiner came through, Bayliners, yachts, whale watch boats, inflatables. There was even a guy in a red striped stunt plane doing maneuvers.
The whales were close to shore, feeding. We were outside the mass of boats and could hardly see them. I mentioned to (can't remember who I was with, I think it was Cari (sp?) "I wish they'd come out here for a while." Mainly kidding because I knew they were feeding. Moments after those words were out of my mouth, I heard a blow behind us off the starboard side. Here came a 6' tall dorsal right at us, and he passed us, not 10 feet off the starboard side. We both laughed. He swam slowly, so we got a good look at him.
He continued on quite a distance. I said, "I know this is selfish, but I'd love to see that one more time. Serendipity - I saw that dorsal tip to the right as he turned and came back toward us. I could feel the goosebumps. This time he came right to us and did a half inversion with his left side up. He swam right next to the boat. I eye locked with him. I felt I could have touched him (but knew better...). Cari said, "Are you okay?" because my eyes leaked a little. I was fine. And have that gem of a memory with me, now, for the rest of my life. We lost him many years ago, but that remains one of my all-time favorite experiences, and I'm so grateful to have had it. I have had others as I was a naturalist on a few of the boats in the late '90s after getting my Marine Mammal Certification from the Whale Museum. But this one topped all of them. Oh, and I couldn't ID him, but from a photograph I'd taken at the time, Dave Ellifrit recognized him right away as L-11 (Okum).
When my son was in 1st grade, he fell in love with Keiko, from the Free Willy movies. We went to the Oregon Coast Aquarium to visit Keiko, and our son spent two days staring through the glass to the big guy. It was mutual!
Center for whale research, my love story for this month was when I was on vacation in Washington, and we went whale watching and saw orcas, they ate, porpoise splashed around a bit, and enjoyed the attention. They were so majestic and beautiful. I fell in love with the young orca that was with momma the entire time. They were all so cute! It was like a dream come true!
It was July 2010, and we were in Active Pass heading to Point Roberts when this pod surprised us and put on quite a show.
You can see the BC Ferry in the background with its Olympic colours and hear the sound of a buoy bell. We felt like we were in a commercial for BC Tourism!
Since that time, we have encountered many orcas, humpbacks, and other sea life that we are so fortunate to have here in our waters. We know how important it is to keep our distance and to do all we can to protect these creatures so that they will continue to survive and thrive. Thank you for all you do to help further this mission!
The orcas that I am obsessed with are J35 (Tahlequah) and her new baby, J57. It was so very sad when she had lost her previous baby, and so this one is extremely special! I look forward to reading about them in your Encounters. I hope they live a long, healthy life!!
I've been so lucky to have many amazing encounters with the Southern Residents, but my greatest was my first.
I was an Earthwatch volunteer at the Center for Whale Research in July of 1994. It was my first trip to San Juan Island (lived in Southern California), and I basically knew very little about any type of whale and had never seen an orca in the wild.
After Ken's introduction and stories, I was so excited to see orcas and help with the photo i.d. The second morning, very early, we got the call "whales are here," and my team was the boat group that day. By 7 a.m., we were out on the water in the old "High Spirits" catamaran. It was a beautiful sunny day, with flat glass water and no other boats around. Dave Ellifrit headed unerringly south, saying he knew where they were, even though we couldn't see them. As soon as we saw two dorsal fins, he identified them as K1 Taku and K2 Lummi, his mother. K1 had his dorsal fin notched to help prove that each individual whale could be identified by their markings. They came closer and closer, and soon we could hear that big "WHOOF" of their exhale. Suddenly they were next to the boat, swirling around us, going under the boat, and K1, within feet of the boat, turned on his side and looked me (and the others) right in the eye! Even Dave said he'd never seen him do that before. I was completely mesmerized by the beauty and power of this enormous orca and felt myself falling (metaphorically!) into his world. Dave then put a hydrophone in the water, and we heard them vocalizing, which was also totally amazing.
The rest of the time (10 days) was full of great encounters and lots of new knowledge about orcas, especially J, K, and L pods.
Ever since that day, my life changed to finding a way to be more involved, help protect whales (including advocating against captivity), and ultimately share my knowledge with others.
Now, 27 years later, I've been able to do all those things. I've lived on Whidbey Island for nine years, served on the National and Puget Sound Chapter Boards of the American Cetacean Society, am a docent at the Langley Whale Center, and was a volunteer naturalist on whale watch boats for six years. And these iconic orcas inspire my art, as well.
Thanks for the opportunity to share my love story with Taku!
Oh my love, For you my little blackfish
High I will breach, Far I will reach
I will catch salmon, Like you have never seen
I will be your special, Bighearted dolphin
For all eternity, I will be by your side
We will swim toward destiny with pride
And if we ever get snatched from the water
Our hearts will always be next to each other
Guiding us through the northern current
For life is a flow and must continue
I will remember, You are my kind of resident
No matter what, I will always find you
As your dorsal fin rises with such majesty
I will recognize you at any distance
As, Colors cannot express your beauty
Thoughts wouldn't understand your intelligence
And no words can explain your language
Oh my cherished, For you my killer whale
I will make, the day of our marriage
The happiness of your life, Forever prevail
Thus let us together, Start our own matriline
That I will protect, Until you see, My last sunshine
In June of 2004, I had the honor to travel with a small cohort from Ripon College (WI) with our professor Dr. Bob Otis to the San Juan Islands for a summer semester studying the effects of boating on the orcas with Dr. Otis and learning as much as we could from Ken Balcomb. Spending time at the lighthouse, kayaking with the pod’s dorsal fins around us, and soaking up all of the brilliance that is the San Juan Islands was simply magical for me: I fell in love with the whales, promised myself I would live in the Pacific Northwest one day, and “adopted” Tsuchi (J-31).
Fast forward to August of 2019 — 15 years later — and I finally got back to the Islands with my husband and 4-year-old daughter. It was my first time back and my family’s first time to go, and I was so excited to share the orcas with them (we had already migrated from San Francisco to the Puget Sound a few years prior). Of course, it was magic for them as well, and imagine my surprise finding out at The Whale Museum that Tsuchi had a daughter, Tofino (J-56), in 2015 (the year my daughter was also born!). Full circle whale love story: my own daughter was able to adopt the daughter of the whale I had adopted 15 years prior. Tsuchi and I were both destined to become moms in 2015, and I’m honored our daughters share the same birth year.
Love and its consequences ... Accompanying the birth of J57, I loved not only Ken's superpod trip but also the appearance of Dave and Katie in a Whale Scout video, radiating joy. This supercharged event powered me for months.
With the Southern Residents, I can't love just one whale. Love to L124, J56, J57, and J58 - taking on the ocean and working hard to keep up with their moms. And love and admiration for all the moms who have been trying, again and again, to continue the existence of the irreplaceable community we call the Southern Residents.
Of all the Southern Residents I love, the one I hold closest is Tokitae, a living member of L-pod, who was captured in the Salish Sea in 1970 at age four. Now at age 55 years, she survives in Miami Seaquarium, where she is known as “Lolita.” Her story is, of course, heart-wrenching. She is, by all appearances, lonely and sad. Born in the wild, she still seems to recognize the calls of her pod. Forty-one of her 51 years in captivity, she has been without an orca companion. Imagine the psychological strength this intelligent, deeply social animal must possess.
I try to think of her every single night, letting my thoughts travel to her tiny pool, simply to be in her presence, to keep her company. I hope she can feel the love of so many of us who honor her. While she may not be counted in the population of the wild SRKW, she is a member, and in her mind, I’m sure she’s wild.
June 1998(?) – Team II
It was the last day of our Earthwatch expedition, the weather had not been kind to us, at no time did we get a total view of the Olympics, some days the peaks some days the base but never them all. There had been a few (bland)J Pod encounters on the West Side.
Given it was our last day & with reports of J Pod on the West Side, the staff decided both the shore & boat teams should go out on High Spirit. There was plenty of deck space on our trusted trimaran.
The trip was fairly routine & we followed the whales for about five hours as they did the 'West Side shuffle' placidly moving North & south following the coast, with very little exciting 'behaviour' activity to report or capture on film.
Around three in the afternoon, we got word over the radio that whales were reported Eastbound at Sooke. The staff had a meeting and asked if the teams were prepared for a longer day as intercepting them would take quite some time (High Spirit's top speed was about 5 knots), a vote indicated the teams had had enough and wanted to return to Snug – it was cold, people wanted a cooked meal & there was packing to do. So we left J Pod facing South at Lime Kiln & as we sailed north a couple of us strained our eyes for our last view of our whales of the trip.
Back at the CWR, the news was confirmed, K's & L's were inbound, so there was a possibility all three Pods would meet up, another staff meeting resulted in them asking if any of the volunteers wanted to go back out. Two hands shot up, my own & Karen, it was quickly agreed that we would go out with four staff (Astrid, Candy, Kim & Kathy) on Ocra (the much smaller & quicker vessel), six was pushing the limits of the boat but the sea state was calm, so a risk assessment was passed with the proviso that we all wore 'Mustang' survival suits.
We very quickly got organised & 'Port' was used to take us back to Snug. By now, it was after six o'clock but the reports were that all three pods were northbound.
We got ourselves sorted out onboard 'Orca' two on the bow & four in the cockpit & it was agreed we could only cruise slowly given this configuration, and within a few minutes of departing harbour we saw our first whales as we entered Mitchel Bay.
We were greeted with whales playing all around us, and Kim was furiously trying to capture all the behaviours that were being called out from all around the boat. After about ten minutes & ten pages of notes, Astrid said, stop & just enjoy the show.
The whales turned South just before reaching Kellett Point & we slowly motored south past the CWR, County Park & Lime Kiln, by the time we reached False Bay the sun was on the horizon, and we found ourselves alone with the whales, all the tour boats had gone home & there were no recreational boats to be seen. We were treated to the wonderful sight of some whales wake riding off our stern (this was before the current strict guidelines).
Once they left our wake, we cut our engine & just drifted on a flat calm sea that was by now a magnificent orange colour following the sunset. We were all spellbound as we just sat/stood listening to the blows as they slowly faded into the gloom to the south.
After a few moments, it dawned upon us that we had no onboard light – save a small torch (& the glow from our teeth as we were all smiling from ear to ear after sharing such a magnificent encounter) & we were about 45 minutes from Snug, so we braced ourselves for a somewhat stressful ride back looking out not for whales but for any waterborne traffic or logs/deadheads.
We made it back safely, just about in time to grab something to eat and pack for departure in the morning but with plenty of stories to tell & memories that will last a lifetime.
J56, Tofino, was born around the time I got into whales. Every time I see her, I just get so happy! It has been such a joy to watch her grow up and get bigger and to see her swimming with the other J11s.
When my beloved grandmother passed away, my cousins and aunts, and uncles came to the island for the funeral. Afterward, we all went out to Limekiln Lighthouse to watch the sunset. All the cousins were on the rocks to the right of the lighthouse, quietly sharing our happy memories of Grandma Helen and grieving together. The orca whales came by, closer than I had ever seen them, right by the rocks, breathing deeply and sharing their beauty with us. It was a special moment that we cousins treasured together.
Twenty-two years ago I fell in love with a whale. His name was J18 “Everett” and he was part of a beautiful matriline called the J10s. His mother J10 “Tahoma” was an amazing mother and grandmother with the most gorgeous saddle patch. His two sisters, J20 “Ewok” and J22 “Oreo”, both incredible mothers themselves, and the rambunctious kids, J32 “Rhapsody” and J34 “DoubleStuf”, completed the family. I was so fortunate to spend many hours with them during my first few years as a naturalist, and I couldn’t wait to get out on the water each day for the chance to see them again.
Twenty years ago I learned that J18’s body had been found near Vancouver, B.C. shortly after his mother J10 had been declared missing. My heart was shattered. J18 embodied everything we love so much about these whales. His strong devotion to his mother, his playful nature with his niece and nephew, his tender protective care of little 3-year-old J32 after her mother died. He was the first of so many whale heartbreaks to follow, but in some ways his death still stings the most. Before Everett, I wouldn’t have believed it possible to become so attached to an animal you could only watch from a distance.
Twenty years ago I made a promise that I would not let him be forgotten, that I would continue to tell his story, that I would do everything I could to care for and protect his family and try to make sure no harm came to them. But I couldn’t keep that promise. We lost J32 and J34 in horribly tragic ways, both of their bodies found not far from the waters where their uncle still lies, as if in death they wanted to be close to him once again.
Twenty years and I haven’t forgotten. Through all the births and deaths of the Southern Residents, the highs and lows of a career I wouldn’t change for the world, in the midst of a heart-wrenching gray whale Unusual Mortality Event and a global pandemic, I still remember him. He is the reason I’m still here; the reason I will never give up. Today, I still have hope for the future of the Southern Residents, and I still fight for J18’s sister J22 and her son J38 “Cookie”. I believe that’s what he would want.
1978 - 2000
On September 19, 2014, my husband, Jim, and I had a once in a lifetime experience. Orca Network had an online auction and I had the winning bid on “Spend the night at the Center for Whale Research and go out on the water with Ken Balcomb.” I am not exaggerating to say that it was a dream come true. I had followed the work of Ken and the CWR for years, and never thought I would actually get the opportunity to see the SRKWs though his eyes while on the water with them. That day we saw several different individuals, but the two that stand out the most in my mind were Granny (J2) and Onyx (L87) swimming together. It was pure magic, and I enjoyed every single minute of that time on the water.
The next morning, Jim and I pulled over at Land Bank on the west side to look for the whales. While standing there scanning the horizon, we started chatting with another woman who was also there looking for whales. This chance encounter was the start of an amazing friendship with Lodie Gilbert. At the time she was also living off island but now is a SJI resident and an interictal part of the Center for Whale Research.