“I’m here to answer questions,” said the young woman wearing a Naturalist shirt. She is tall, slender, pale, long dark hair pulled back under a brimmed cap, her eyes large, dark, gentle Though the day is overcast, she seems poised for action, as if expecting brilliant sunlight, or a pod of orcas, to break through at any moment.
“Are they out there?” I asked, scanning the calm surface of Haro Strait, the habitat for J, K, and L pods just off coast of San Juan Island.
Her eyes wandered to the rippling kelp beds. “We’ve lost 17 orcas in the last 5 years. You probably know about J50, the young one they keep giving medicine to, and that poor mom who carried her dead calf with her for so long. She finally let go… “ Her voice was clam, professional, laced with a gentle mourning.
“Why are they dying?”
“Food source. They’re picky. The kind of salmon they like are being fished out, or dying because of the warming ocean. Dams are making it harder for the salmon to reach the sea.”
Her cell phone beeped. “I’m here,” she said. “Right. I’ll report siting. I promise” She chuckled and hung up.
“So you’re confident they are out there?”
She sighed, sizing me up: would I be open to what she was about to tell me?
I smiled. “What is it?”
Her eyes returned to the sea. “Look, I think of myself as a pretty scientific person. But, with what I’ve seen lately, I’ starting to finally listen to people who talk about whales having, you know, extra-sensory perception.”
“Like, last week, I was out by the lighthouse and I could see a pod way out there, and I knew from the data report that one of them I had, well, communicated with, was swimming out there with the pod.”
“Yeah. So, I got this weird feeling that one of the whales was waiting for me. It’s hard to describe. So, I shouted ‘Galineau! ‘ And, way out there, so far away he couldn’t have heard me, this one whale broke off from the pod and went under. The rest swam out to sea, and I waited, and then I thought ‘Well, that’s that,’ and I reached down to get my pack, and I glanced in the water, and there was a face staring up at me! I walked to water’s edge, and Galineau came up as close to me as he could possibly could!”
“You’re here!” I said, and he raised his dorsal fin and slapped the water!
I laughed, and kept talking, and he slapped and turned his head so his eye could see me real well, almost like he was taking a picture of me in his mind. It went on like this as long as I kept talking. Then, when I stopped, he went under and went out to sea.”
“That’s really amazing.” I said, aware of a slight skepticism in the back of my mind, but she spoke with such sincerity, and astonishment, as anyone with a scientific mind would describe something that seemed inexplicable.
“It keeps happening!” she said, her large dark eyes growing wider. “Last week I was down at Lime Kiln, you know, where they come real close to the rocks, and I couldn’t see them, and couldn’t see them, and then I hollered out, ‘Ok, Solstice! Ok, Vega! I’ve got to leave at 8:30, boys. Hoped to catch you! Maybe next time!’ “
“Again, nothing. I gathered my stuff up, checked my phone, and then, I glanced out and here come two dorsal fins, heading right toward me. Vega! Solstice! They came so close I thought they would beach themselves in the low tide! I looked at my watch. 8:29! I kept talking and shouting their names, and we stayed there together, just the 3 of us, for what seemed like a long time. Then I said, “I really have to go.” And they went under and swam away.”
“You’re an orca whisperer,” I said reverently.
She laughed. “That’s what my mom says. Orcas, their brains are a lot bigger than ours, and I’m starting to believe that they couldn’t have been just cuing off the sound of my voice; they were too far away, and I can’t make my voice heard like one of their own, even if I dived under and shouted through the water. It was something else, like there’s an emotional, spiritual connection between us. Sounds woo woo, doesn’t it?
“Sounds like you’re describing your own experience. How can you deny what you’ve observed and lived?”
She shrugged, suddenly a bit embarrassed for having told me the story.
What’s your name?” I asked.
“Ariel. Like the mermaid.”
We laughed warmly. She turned away and we looked out at the calm waters. I knew she wouldn’t call out to Galineau, Vega, or Solstice while I was still there, and I wanted to honor her private relationship with the whales, so I shook her hand and thanked her, and took my leave.
As I walked up the hill, I felt hopeful, for the future of the whales. Not so much because so many people are working so hard to save them, but because of the orca’s special genius for communicating with a human, by “extra sensory” or spiritual perception. If only we could learn to do this, to connect across what often seems to be impossible boundaries, species to species, human beings to one another.