We were out photographing whales with a flotilla of a dozen other tourist boats from ports all across the Salish Sea. In August 2001, it was one of my first visits to the area. The fuzz and beep of ship radios knitted a net over the ocean, a hazy mimic of the whales’ own aural links. Electromagnetic radiation allowed each skipper to hear the other’s voices. The prey was unable to flee. The billboards on the beach screamed, “Whales guaranteed!”
We continued on our way, weaving around the island peaks. A sighting off San Juan Island’s south-west coast. A dorsal fin scythed the water, then dropped, as seen via binoculars. Another had a misty shower as the animal breathed. Then there was no sign. The whales, on the other hand, were easy to find. A dozen boats were grouped together, the most of which were slowly motoring west, away from the beach. We drew closer, reducing the motor till we weren’t making a wake and positioned ourselves on the outskirts of the throng of boats and cruisers.
A sheet of marble skated just beneath the surface of the water. Smooth and oily. Under the hazed bottle glass on the water’s surface, a spill of black ink sheets. Praaf! The exhalation was explosive and harsh 15 meters ahead of the boat.
The pod of roughly ten animals arose from the water. Our captain said that we were part of the L pod of orcas, one of three pods that make up the “southern residents” in the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, and that they were frequently spotted hunting salmon around the San Juan Islands. Others, such as “transients” who ply coastal waters and “offshores” who mostly feed in the Pacific, come to visit on a regular basis. The L pod made its way west, toward the Haro Strait. As the U-shaped arc of boats pursued the pod, leaving open water ahead of the whales, our motors purred.
We hung a hydrophone from the boat’s gunwale, with the cord feeding a small speaker housed in plastic. Sounds of a whale! And there’s a lot of engine noise. The clicks came in squalls, like taps on a metal can. These are the echolocating search beams of whales. The whales use echoes to not only see through the murky water, but also to determine how soft, taut, quick, or tremulous the stuff around them is.
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