A whale of a thrill for Whidbey Islanders

"The whales of September cruised past the west coast of Whidbey Island Sunday - dozens of them, feeding as they went - and on Monday morning they cruised back again, headed north to the Straits of Georgia.Bonnie McKee of Bush Point had a grandstand seat for the wild orca show. She spotted about six of them at 10 a.m. Sunday. I was out on the dock, said McKee, who works at the Bush Point Wharf Bed and Breakfast, and I saw a pod of killer whales spouting.McKee called a couple of visitors who were at the bed and breakfast and they came out to watch, too. We were excited, she said Tuesday, we were jumping up and down.The orcas were rolling in and out of the water out in the middle of the channel, McKee said. Their dorsal fins are 6-feet high, so they're hard to miss. The Victoria Clipper was out in the channel too, she said, with its engines stopped and everybody was on deck watching them.There were a lot big of salmon jumping on Sunday, McKee said, which is probably why the orcas were in the area.Al Lunemann, who lives north of Ebey's Landing, saw the whales on Monday when they were headed north. One group had 12 orcas, another group must have had 18 or 20, he said. It's the most I've ever seen.The whales didn't seem to be feeding, Lunemann said, and by the time they got to Partridge Point, three inflatable whale-watching boats had come across from the San Juans to follow them. Lunemann says whales have shown up off the west coast in previous Septembers, and he spotted a few orcas far out earlier this summer. I'm always looking, he said. It's always a thrill to see them.Susan Berta, of the Whidbey-based Orca Conservancy, said the orcas were reported to the Friday Harbor Whale Museum's hotline at 7:45 a.m. Sunday, when they were off Lagoon Point. Berta was there by 9 a.m., in time to see the second and third groups of orcas come through. They were all very active when we first saw them, Berta said. Lots of spy hops, tail lobbing and porpoising ... most likely they were fishing for salmon.She identified the orcas as members of J pod and parts of L pod, which belong to the Southern Resident Community and are most frequently seen around the San Juan Islands. However, it isn't unusual to see them off Whidbey, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island.They used to do that run every month from May to October, he said. But they don't do it so much any more, probably because the area is more built up and there are fewer salmon in the southern reaches of Puget Sound. The distance is no problem. The orcas can easily cover 75 miles in a day, Balcomb said. They follow the fall chum run, and they can go as far south as Olympia, although they don't usually go any further than Tacoma and Vashon Island.But the pods' patterns are changing.Balcomb has been studying the whales in this area for 25 years, and says that for the past five years, they've been stranger every year.The J and L pods were foraging west of Vancouver Island this August and September, he said, and in January they were spotted as far south as California. They are going further and doing different patterns, he said. Balcomb credits the changes, as well as the dwindling population of orcas in the Southern Community pods - down 15 percent in the past five years - to lack of food as the numbers of salmon, bottom fish and rock fish shrink. Orcas need to eat every day, and when they don't, they draw on their blubber supplies which often contain high levels of toxins such as PCBs, he said. Whales are not going to be able to wait much longer for us to solve this fish problem and habitat problem, he said. If those problems are not solved, he gives the orcas two more generations - that would we 20 years - before they get beyond the point of no return. -------------------Whale spottingIf you sight whales off Whidbey, call the Friday Harbor Whale Museum's hotline: (800) 562-8832.The Orca Conservancy is forming a Volunteer Whale Watch Network, in conjunction with the Center for Whale Research. Anyone who'd like to volunteer or be put on the e-mail alert list can call 678-3451. Web site: More whale information is available from the Center for Whale Research, PO Box 1577, Friday Harbor, 98250, or its Web site: "

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