By Leigh Calvez April 21, 2011
I sat on the western shore of San Juan Island at Lime Kiln State Park, aka Whale Watch Park, waiting for the party to start—literally and figuratively. A harbor porpoise and seals fished in the round tidal swirl of smooth water in front of me, as I scanned the horizon for other animal activity. I had made the unreasonable day trip from Bainbridge Island to San Juan Island, hoping to see some of the resident orcas as they swam by the park on their daily search for salmon and to attend Granny’s 100th birthday celebration.
“Granny,” or “J2,” as she is known by researchers, is the oldest whale in the Southern Resident Community. She has lived more than 50 years past “childbearing” age to help her family continue to thrive. Like humans, orcas are one of only a handful of species on the planet that do this. Orca families are socially structured like human tribal societies. So it is vital to the survival of their offspring that all their years of learning, wisdom, and culture are passed down from one generation to the next.
As a naturalist on the whale-watch boats for many years, I often wondered what it must have been like being a whale over the last 100 years. Imagine all the ways our world has changed in that period of time. Most of those changes have had direct consequences on our orca neighbors. Yet Granny has survived, watching her sons and daughters and their sons and daughters grow to adulthood and then continue the family tree as the next generation was born. I am awed by this span of a life, so I came to these shores to honor Granny and a water-world wisdom that I can only imagine.
I wandered along the path toward Lime Kiln Lighthouse to find a good seat for the celebration. A Celtic band started to play and the rare sun shone brightly. As I listened, I wondered about Granny and all she had learned over her long life. Distant orca calls from the underwater hydrophone floated through the air, blending seamlessly with human song. I breathed deep the warm summer air and smiled to myself, enjoying this beautiful day. Then word was passed among the park’s visitors, “the whales are coming!” My heart raced as I grabbed my binoculars to scan the horizon, looking first for the most obvious sign, a cluster of whale-watch boats. I found them after a few seconds; then looked between the boats for the tall black fins and the whales’ blows that look like puffs of mist rising from the water.
I ran to the water and perched on the rocky shore to get a better view. The tide had turned to flood and was now racing by like a rushing river. The whales moved closer, fishing near the shore. Then I noticed for the first time that the whales were swimming with the tide! When I worked on the boats, I watched the orcas do what was called “the west side shuffle,” swimming up and down the west side of San Juan Island looking for the salmon that had arrived from the ocean through the Strait of Juan De Fuca only to bump up against the island as they turned north to swim up rivers like the Frasier in British Columbia. I remember the captain telling me every day whether the tide was rising or falling. I thought he was concerned with the speed of our boat going with or against the tide. It had never occurred to me before that day that the whales were using the force of the tide!
I imagined Granny teaching generations of youngsters how to swim with the tide, how it saved them energy by allowing them to spend hours nearly effortlessly catching the fish they needed each day to survive, and the fun they must have had riding this underwater current like the bow of a boat. Wow! I thought, surprised by my lack of understanding. How had it taken me so long to understand this important fact? What else has I missed, I wondered, sensing another awareness just under the surface. Posed there on the rocks like Rodin’s “The Thinker,” my finger tapping my lips and the tightness of thought on my face, I pondered this new understanding.
I remembered watching the ferries lumbering past my home on Bainbridge, sometimes moving swiftly with the tide while other times they struggled to keep pushing forward as they moved against it. Then I sat up straight. “OOOOhhh!” I said aloud like I just got a joke. How often had I struggled against my own internal tide because that flow was going against everything I thought I “should” be doing? How long had I stayed in the job that made me stressed and miserable or held on to a relationship or a belief I had outgrown because it was familiar? What was it that stopped me from following my own internal flow? Once I considered this, I could begin to see how much effort and energy this took from me to go against my own flow, to not claim my dreams or to not live from what was most valuable to me. Like dozens of baby orcas, I was learning from Granny one of the most important life lessons: Go with the flow.
One by one the whales from the J and K pods swam past the lighthouse. Visitors “oohed” and “aahed” like they were watching fireworks as each whale surfaced and dove. The orcas continued on to the north, catching and eating salmon along the way. I was certain they would return with the next tide.
Leigh Calvez is a nature writer and life/adventure coach living on Bainbridge Island. She is the founder of Next Steps Life Coaching and Wild Women Adventures. To contact her, e-mail leighcalvez [at] gmail [dot] com.
Photos courtesy of Leigh Calvez.