Story and photographs copyright © 2003 by Lee Rentz
|We heard the hissing sound of whales coming up to breathe, and suddenly they were all around us. One Orca was headed straight toward our fragile canoe, but it dove under us; then we could actually see its huge black and white patterned body glide by just a few feet under our craft!
Some experiences with wildlife are imprinted so strongly on our minds that much of life pales by comparison. Our adventure with the Killer Whales on Washington's Puget Sound was one of those experiences.
It was October of 1997, and we heard on the local television news that a pod of Killer Whales (also known as Orcas) was in Dyes Inlet--a remote finger of Puget Sound. This was unusual: they had not been observed there for decades. Fishermen quickly noted that the whales appeared to be feeding on Chum Salmon.
Chico Creek empties into Dyes Inlet, and the fall Chum Salmon spawning run was on, consisting of thousands upon thousands of hefty salmon. The 19 members of Orca Pod L-28 must have followed the hordes of salmon into the inlet, and were now consuming an estimated 700 fish per day.
Karen proposed that we take our canoe to Dyes Inlet and see if conditions were all right for canoeing that Saturday. We had never canoed on saltwater before, and were a bit apprehensive about tidal currents and wind, but we launched anyway and quickly found ourselves surrounded by whales.
The biggest whale, a 9000 lb. male that was about 20 years old at the time, had a 6-foot high fin sticking out of the water that reminded me of all the scary shark stories I've ever heard. But Puget Sound's Killer Whales are known to eat only fish--not seals, sea lions, or Homo sapiens--so we figured that unless nature was planning to go on a rampage, we were pretty safe. (On the other hand, a transient Killer Whale pod from the open ocean recently entered Hood Canal, a branch off Puget Sound, and proceeded to kill and eat an estimated half of the Harbor Seals in the Canal. I absolutely would not go canoeing with that pod, or I might end up like Jonah in the belly of the beast!)
From our 17' canoe, we watched as the whales repeatedly passed by in a group. Occasionally one would breach, leaping way out of the water toward the sun.
About 200 boats shared the water with the whales that Saturday, and the crowded waters produced nary an accident between whales and humans. Every boater and every whale behaved well, though whale ecologists warned that all the boaters were stressing the whales. I was never convinced that was true; the whales seemed to be doing just fine with their feeding and they only had to be careful not to collide with a boat when they surfaced. I remember that at least one canoe tipped over when they lost their balance, and the occupants got to go swimming with the whales. But nobody was eaten.
We had such a memorable time that we returned the next day and enjoyed a second misty morning with these huge inhabitants of Puget Sound.
The orcas remained about a month, and departed Dyes Inlet on November 20th. During the visit, thousands of people observed the whales in closer proximity than they might ever again in their lives. A fine time was had by all--including, so far as I could tell, the Killer Whales.
|Karen in the bow of our canoe, watching for Killer Whales as the mist rises off Dyes Inlet|
|A Killer Whale breaches on Dyes Inlet near a variety of small craft|
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