Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Orca report

Just returned from another orca-watching trip to the San Juans. It's been a sketchy year for orca sightings, but Monday we had a great experience.

I had taken Fiona, who sits in a child seat in the middle of the boat, out to just paddle around and maybe see some seals along the west coast of San Juan Island. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and a light breeze kept everything cool. My sister-in-law, Trish, was in the front seat.

We rounded a corner and discovered a phalanx of whale-watching boats stretching southward for a mile or so. And heading right toward us was a large pod of orcas.

We simply stopped, unsure which way the whales were headed. As it happens, they were headed directly for us -- at least, a large portion of the pod was. Some swam by further out, but by the time the pod of 30 or so orcas had passed us by, about 20 of them had passed near our kayak. We thumped furiously on the hull of the boat the whole time so they could detect our presence.

One drifted by just under the rear of the boat, seemingly chasing a salmon, and then surfaced about five feet behind my rudder. One tail-lobbed us in an apparent warning; another rolled and wagged its pectoral fin in the air at us. A large male fully breached about twenty yards away from the front of the boat, and you could probably hear us gasp all the way back on shore.

Fiona had been near to drifting off for her regular 3-year-old's afternoon nap just before the whales appeared, but the first one who came near the boat awoke her fully. "Wow! They're really big, Dad!" she cried.

The night before, as she was going to bed in the tent, I had read her Paul Owen Lewis' Davy's Dream, a charming story about a boy who dreams of making friends with orcas by, among other things, singing to them.

As it also happens, her very favoritest favoritest movie in all the whole wide world right now is The Little Mermaid, which happens to feature a singing mermaid whose main theme is a short melody -- "Ah ah ah, ah ah ah" -- that Fiona has of course memorized.

Shortly after the first orca appeared near our boat, she decided to sing to them. The Little Mermaid Theme, of course. And over the course of the next 45 minutes or so, she sang to them. And when the orcas began appearing regularly, closer and playing, she cried out:

"It works, Daddy, it works!"

Of course, we both congratulated her for her awesome mermaid singing skill.

Later, when we got back to shore, Auntie Trish asked Fiona: "Were you ever scared of the orcas, honey?"

"Nooooo!" Fiona retorted scornfully, as though Auntie Trish was just being silly.

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