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First Published in Whoosh! The Zine for Whale Lovers.
Write to me if you would like to order a copy of your very own.

Clap Your Hands and Sing

Orcas give me so much. More than anything, they give me something beautiful to think about when the world has temporarily lost its magic.  The sudden dramatic appearance of their perfectly black and white shape in the wild never fails to leave me full of wonder. The more anecdotes I hear about how smart and funny and surprising they are, the more I love them. They’re so strange, they might as well be from outer space. Having my boat mugged by an orca was much as I’d expect being inspected by an alien to feel. Its sonar squeaks and rubbles bounced through my body as it turned this way and that. It was impossible to know what kind of impression it was getting from the scans it was taking of me. The more I learn about orcas, the greater my commitment grows to keeping my carbon footprint small.  I want them to be around long after we are gone. They deserve this place.

I read in Sunset Magazine that on the summer solstice the canticle choir from Seattle travels to San Juan island to sing to the orcas at sunset. I wish I could clean up the ocean and refill it with fish to thank them for being so great. But since I can’t, I knew I had to show up for the serenade. It was the least I could do.

I rallied the troops, and on June 21st at 5:30 in the morning, Joseph (boyfriend), Jordan (boyfriend’s  5 yr old girl), Randon (boyfriend’s 18 yr old boy) and I squeezed into my old beige Subaru and headed north. Our friend Elizabeth and her little dog, Blanca, had left ahead of us in her nice shiny Outback.

The idea was to set up camp near Lime Kiln Point State Park then head over for the ceremony. After that, we’d spend the weekend paddling and putzing around the island.

I’d never been camping with Joseph’s kids before. Joseph was happy to get to spend the weekend with Randon, who was heading off to college that fall, and Randon felt the same about his Dad. Jordan was very excited about the idea of sleeping in a tent with us. Neither Joseph nor his kids had seen an orca in the wild before and didn’t have any expectations to see one this weekend. I had spent thousands of hours looking for orcas and been rewarded with perhaps 5 hours of very cool orca activity for my investment. I was cautiously optimistic that we’d see an orca this weekend but didn’t want to jinx it by talking about it too much. If this weekend adventure went well, it could herald a lifetime of nature expeditions together. If it went poorly, I might have to continue to do my nature trips solo. The drive from Portland to Anacortes was an easy 4-hour shot. We waited in line until 2:00 PM, then put our car on the ferry to become people of the soft, green islands for the weekend. The ferry made stops at Lopez Island, Shaw Island, and Orcas Island before reaching San Juan. I eyed their pretty little fishing village turned tourist ports and plotted future visits.

If you live in the San Juans or the BC islands, you probably ride the ferry regularly. And if you ride the ferry regularly, there will be days when a pod of orcas visits your boat. Every northwest ferry gets a few lap dances a summer. I have never been so lucky, but I remember every ferry ride I have ever taken in this region. This is because instead of hunkering down over stale coffee below, I spend my time pacing the deck, sniffing the air like a coon hound and practically throwing my neck out as I scan the horizon for blows and fins. An orca could come shooting out of the water anywhere at anytime in these parts. My heart beats quickly and I am full of hope the whole time we are afloat. My breath doesn’t come regularly again until I’m on the dock.

On this ferry ride, Jordan ran off with some other kids, become disoriented and burst into tears, which activated the lost child on the ferry alarm. I beat Joseph to her, finding her crying between two staff members, who had just asked for the parents of Jordan to come to the lower deck. When I went over to pick her up, she looked at me, then clutched onto the pant legs of one of the staff members and cried harder. The staff member asked her if I was her parent and she said, “No.” which is fair enough. Technically, I’m not. I’m the girlfriend of her dad. But we are mighty close and spend lots of time together. Visions of wicked stepmothers danced through my head, as I said, “Oh, COME ON, Jordan, you KNOW me.” Just then Joseph appeared, held out his arms and she leapt joyfully into them as I stood there hands dangling uselessly.

Friday Harbor, where the ferry let us off on San Juan Island, is an old fishing village nestled charmingly into a cove. The whole place is just one big, “awwww…” The smell of fish and chips hits you the moment you depart the ferry. Sea kissed wooden buildings adorned with well-kept white trim house sea themed tourist bric-a-brac.

San Juan Island is a nice size, both in terms of geography and population. It is spacious enough to feel rural, yet populated enough to support a variety of grocery stores, massage therapists, bars and espresso joints.

Our campground and Lime Kiln Point State Park were on the opposite side of the island from Friday Harbor. It was already 3:30, so we didn’t stop to explore. Instead, we traced the main island road counterclockwise around its perimeter and reached our camping spot.

The best place to camp on San Juan Island in the summer if you want to worship at the church of the whale is San Juan County Park. There is a kelp forest in your watery front yard and orcas like to play in it. Some mornings you will wake up to the sound of whales breathing just outside your tent and you will unzip your flap to see a big black fin bobbing before you. Orcas pass by the park almost every day during the summer.

Unfortunately, this park is also very well known. When the park opens up its reservation line for the summer in mid-March, you must put your phone on automatic redial and be vigilant. The entire campground is usually booked for the summer by the end of March. I had gotten the skinny too late, so had to make due with sub-par camping.

We had reservations a few miles up the road at Mitchell Bay Landing. Their cheesy purple font combined with the fact that they seemed to specialize in everything made me suspicious: “…group and family retreats, seasonal events, BBQs, island tours, whale watching, kayaking, boat rentals (kayak and OB motor boats), tent and pickup camper/van sites including deluxe travel trailers...” Business which try to serve everyone tend to satisfy none. And they tend to be run by chatty semi-retired faux renaissance men who love to corner people like me and tell me everything. But this was as close as we could get to the orcas on such short notice, so there we were.

I was right about the chatty faux renaissance thing and the place being a disappointment. Fortunately, 5 year olds are excellent faux renaissance man repellent. While both types tend to be very self absorbed, energetic and inquisitive, for some reason, they usually clash. Using Jordan as a human shield against the owner’s conversational advances, I was able to procure our spot, sign the forms and pay for the weekend in an almost streamlined fashion.

The entire campground turned out to be the owner’s small grassy backyard. We were instructed to set up in front of the 3 other tents, which left each tent in the campground with about 2 feet between them. The owner ominously advised us to take a nap now, as we wouldn’t be able to once the other campers returned. Why? Were they rock musicians? Rednecks? Obnoxious college kids? I’ve either been or camped with all 3 and never slept well with any of them.

We pitched our tents and began nesting.

The most interesting thing in the campground for Jordan was Elizabeth’s little white dog. Blanca is so easy going, she seems a bit touched. Blanca was on a leash, so Jordan took it upon herself to march Blanca around and around the picnic tables, practicing her dog walking skills. “Come Blanca! Blanca Come! Come! Come! Come Blanca Come!” she commanded, as poor little Blanca let herself be dragged along. We let Blanca take one for the team while we put the final touches on our set ups, then when she could take it no more, we dug through our stuff to find something else for Jordan to entertain herself with.

Our neighbors paddled up to the dock a few hours later. They were French. French people are not notoriously loud. They did have a lot of babies. Like, 2 babies per tent. They also had a few little kids who were about Jordan’s age.

Jordan is the most socially confident kid I’ve ever known. Every stranger truly is a friend she hasn’t met yet, and she does her very best to make sure no one is left a stranger. As soon as she saw the kids, she sidled over to figure out how she could win them over. Their strange language stopped her. Jordan doesn’t speak French, but we’ve talked about Spanish a little bit. So, she went up to one of the kids and in her best imitation of a foreign language said, “Como nastana uno dos tres.”

It didn’t work.

She tried again, “No mono la mana.”

Blank stares all around. She shrugged her shoulders and resumed torturing Blanca.

What a bunch of worthless kids.

The French people seemed friendly enough for French people. But when they zipped themselves into their tents for naptime, the noise fest began. One baby started whimpering, setting another one off in a different tent. Hearing the other baby’s response cause the first baby’s cries to escalate. Baby #3 was woken up by baby # 2 and now the walls of the loudest tent began to tremble and shake as French mamas positioned their babies this way and that in efforts to quiet them. Nothing worked. The howling continued. Finally a mama emerged from the tent with a crying baby and stuck it inside the third tent. There were more babies in this tent, unfortunately, and this strategy had the unfortunate effect of triggering them, as well. No matter how the babies were configured, they continued to set each other off like car alarms.

We decided we hated them and did not tell them about the orca show we were going to see that night. We just left the crying babies behind and made the 10-minute drive south to Lime Kiln Point State Park.

It’s no coincidence that the orca serenade takes place at Lime Kiln Point State Park. It is the best place to see orcas from land in the United States. If you go there between late June and September and sit there all day, you’ve got a close to 100% chance of seeing an orca. The land at the point is shaped like a hook. When the tide comes in, fish get pushed into the belly of the hook and the orcas follow them in to gobble them up.

When we arrived at 6:30, we heard the orcas had passed by 10 minutes earlier.  They had been moving decisively south. It didn’t sound as if they were likely to come back. Maybe it was our bad karma for not telling the French people about the show.

About 50 people had tucked into their spots on the black rocks overlooking the water. A little white lighthouse sat on our right. Speakers were set up and were facing the water. Joseph and Randon went into explorer mode, charging off to survey the length of the park on the water, not to be seen again for the next hour. Elizabeth was meeting a friend who lived on the island and had brought a bottle of wine to share with him. She was happy just to be here. Having never seen an orca before, she had no expectation of seeing one now and set up her camping chair to enjoy the sunset and the music, come what may.

I scanned the rocks for a good spot for Jordan and I and led her down to it. Meanwhile, three members of the nearby Tlinget Indian tribe had come to participate in the festivities. They started banging on a big ritualistic orca shaped drum and singing traditional songs. They were wearing black and red outfits embroidered with orca motifs. I felt compelled to educate Jordan about all of this, although I knew little more than she about it. Jordan was more interested in our neighbor’s gum and set about befriending her.

“Hi. My name is Jordan. What’s yours?”

It is a novelty to be approached by a kid you don’t know in public these days. Grownups usually love it when Jordan introduces herself.

“My name is Karen. How old are you?”

“Five. What kind of gum do you have?”

“It’s spearmint.”

Jordan clenched her fists and pumped them in the air as if she had just won a prize. “Ooooooh, I loooove spearmint!”

“I’m sorry. I don’t have any more.”

“Can I have some of yours?”

“I’m sorry. I only have this one piece.” Karen looked away from Jordan and out onto the horizon. The friendly little kid novelty had worn off..

“Does it have taste left? Maybe I could have half.”

At this point I intervened on the gum lady’s behalf and told Jordan no.

The orcas were way out there, on the horizon. I could tell because several whale watching boats just sitting out there, and they hadn’t moved since we arrived. Whale watching boats only stop and cluster for one thing.

“Hi ya ya ya…,” sang the Indians.

A sturdy little boy with a really cool orca hat and striped osh kosh overalls began jumping up and down to the music. The mom looked cool. I told Jordan to go dance with the boy. She didn’t want to leave the woman with the gum. The little boy noticed Jordan looking up with starving puppy eyes at the gum lady and came over to get in on whatever she was trying to get in on. They didn’t waste time on introductions.

Jordan (to boy, but not breaking eye contact w/ gum lady): “She has gum. It’s spearmint.”

Boy (to lady): “Oh! Gum! Can I have gum? I won’t swallow. I promise.”

Jordan: “I never swallow.”

Boy (to lady): “Just one piece? Please? I promise I won’t swallow.”

A better person would have relocated her there and then, but I took the opportunity of everyone’s distraction to open a bottle of wine, pour its contents into an opaque plastic water container and take a big slug of wine. We would be here for a few hours and a bottle of Chablis makes me so much more relaxed and patient with the wee ones. Then I tried to distract Jordan from the lady again. “Come on, Jordan. Look! There’s orcas out there! See the boats? There’s orcas out there!”

Jordan had never seen an orca before but she’d heard Joseph and I talk about them a lot. She’d seen a few on TV, but I don’t know if that really translated. She was trained to point out orca and whale themed images like other kids point out punch buggies and cement trucks.

She had, however, had gum before, and found it far more interesting than boring little black specs on the horizon. I pried her from her spot and brought her back to a spot farther from the lady, balancing her in one arm, my wine filled water bottle in the other. What had happened to Joseph and Randon?

I was still sore at Jordan about the ferry drama.

I wished Joseph would quit pair bonding with his son and come get his other kid to settle down.

The gum swallowing boy was Max. Once he realized gum wasn’t going to happen, he returned to boogying down to the Indian music. He had some great moves. The Tlinget people finished and the choir began. The conductor played some sort of a wooden xylophone and conducted at the same time. He had wild curly brown hair. There were 12 choir singers. They sang groovy world music songs about peace and love with a strong classical backbone. Max got down to the music. Jordan sulked angrily on my lap about not having gum.

The orcas came closer. We could see their spouts now. The mother of Max lives on Shaw Island and does something environmental. She knew the conductor of the choir and had been coming to this event for 7 years. She also seemed to be very good at counting and identifying orcas. She thought there were 13 out there. I couldn’t see much around Jordan’s pissed off head.

I let Jordan get up and play with Max. They started jumping off of the rocks. The rocks were craggy and steep and not really very safe for jumping around on. I grabbed Jordan again and stood up to see the orcas, holding her in my arms and pointing them out to her. They were heading our way. There were a lot of them. Now, I could see fins.

“Do you see that? That’s an orca – can you see it?” as I pointed out distant blows.

She nodded noncommittally, but I wasn’t sure if she really understood that those were orcas out there, and what the big deal was, anyway.

The audience was palpably excited. So was the choir. They launched into Amazing Grace. And just then, an orca did a wonderful spectacular orca thing. It breached. Leaping suddenly and completely into the air, we were treated to a full view of its white belly as it seemed to hang temporarily suspended before it twisted onto its back and crashed down with a magnificent splash.

The audience went wild. We all began to sing.

“Did you see that, Jordan?” She just shrugged. She was still mad about the gum and not being allowed to jump from the rocks.

The sun sank lower, filling the clouds with gold and setting us all aglow.

Max’s mom knew her local orca pods. She thought that this was pod A. But maybe it was pod B. It all depended if an orca named Ruffles was there. Whichever pod it was, this was a great big fuckload of orcas beelining toward us. Way more than 13.

The orcas seemed to be having a dance party of their own out there, as they moved toward us, taking turns breaching, tail lobbing, fin slapping and so on as they cruised the surface. Everything they did was met with hoots and hollers from our end.

I had never been with such a devoted group of whale fanatics. It felt like we were pulling them to us with our adoration.

Everyone had stood up now. My arms wore out and I had to set Jordan down. I wondered if she could see anything through the forest of legs. I continued to point out fins, tails and blows, but she was being emphatically blasé.

Now that the orcas were in plain sight, the Tlingets resumed with their drums and songs, since they knew the official whale calling songs. They knew what they were doing because just moments later, a 6-foot high pointed male orca fin rose up directly in front of the lighthouse. We gasped with delight. Another orca came over swimming upside down, giving us a full view of its belly as it swam by. They spy hopped and fin slapped and goofed off directly in front of the rocks under as we sang and clapped.

Since I was distracted, Jordan took advantage of the opportunity to convince the gum lady to share the love. No dice.

I think she saw the orcas, but in her experience, dachsunds and real live Disney princesses were just as rare and way more interactive.

Nonetheless, we both left that night with fin and flipper memories etched into our brains. An all-star cast of 39 orcas came together to give us a once in a lifetime performance set to the most beautiful music on that gorgeous soltice evening. It turned out there were several whale scientists at the point that night. They explained that we had witnessed a gathering of a superpod – when more than one pod temporarily gathers together. They believed the orcas must have followed some fish into the area and we had gotten lucky. But here is why I am a whale nut and not a whale scientist. As far as I’m concerned, those orcas weren’t feeding, they were showing off. For us. They might have followed some fish in to begin with, but they stuck around for the music and applause.

Joseph, Randon and Elizabeth knew enough about orcas to know they had witnessed something incredible that night.  I wondered if Jordan would remember the orcas at all 10 years from now. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take her on a whale watching trip again. Then, a few months later I was listening to her playing with stuffed dolphins, sharks and orcas in her room with a friend.

The shark was being mean but then the dolphin scared it away with its sonar. (My heart swelled with pride – I taught her that dolphins can do that.)

Then the stuffed orca came along.

“What do orcas do?” her friend asked.

“They juuuump. And they move their arms around. And they show their tails.”

“I never saw a orca before.”

Then she said something that confirmed I was raising her to be a good little whale nut.

“Oh! It’s easy. If you want to see an orca, you just have to sing.”

If you go:

What: OrcaSing
Where: Lime Kiln Point State Park, San Juan Island, WA
When: Solstice (June 21) 6:30 PM

San Juan Island State Park Campground
Mitchell Bay Campground