A Whale of a Tale

Orca Network celebrates 20th anniversary

There’s just something about whales that continues to captivate Howard Garrett and Susan Berta, co-founders of the Orca Network.

“The more you see them, how graceful and in control and powerful they are in so many different ways, and you see their intentionality, that they have minds, they do things cooperatively and deliberately and you just sense that,” Garrett said. “Somebody’s home in there.”

The Whidbey husband and wife recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of their whale-sighting nonprofit organization, which has endured nearly as long as their relationship.

The couple’s shared love of whales has driven their relationship over the years.

There’s the special edition Keiko-themed Barbie doll Garrett gifted to Berta early on in their courtship, but then there’s also the big gal who united them: Tokitae, the captive orca who has resided at the Miami Seaquarium since her capture from Penn Cove in 1970.

In 1995, Garrett helped lead a grassroots campaign to bring Tokitae — who had been renamed Lolita by the aquarium — back to her home. The campaign was supported by a number of people, including Elton John.

Garrett started the Tokitae Foundation to educate people about the whale, even moving to Miami for a few years to be on the front lines.

“Everything’s a show there and they don’t have that context of the whale,” Berta said.

At the time, she was the coordinator for the Washington State University Beach Watchers program, which later became known as the Sound Water Stewards of Island County. She ran an informal whale-sighting network that operated at first as a phone tree.

“I had a list of people I would call and say, ‘The orcas are headed your way, if you want to get out and try to see them,’” Berta recalled.

The phone tree morphed into an email list, which now has 16,500 people subscribed to it.

Berta and Garrett merged their whale passions to create the Orca Network, which was officially established in November 2001. The pair met in 1995 through their mutual interests and married in 2005.

“Twenty years ago we officially started Orca Network, thinking it was just gonna be a little organization, and it was,” Berta said. “For 15 years, it was just the two of us.”

The nonprofit was founded to bring awareness to the plight of the Southern Resident orcas, which had been declining in numbers at the time of the organization’s establishment.

That goal has been met, as the number of fans on the Orca Network’s Facebook page can attest. Over 177,000 people currently follow the page. Berta said whale sightings have tripled in the last five or six years.

The 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which is about SeaWorld orcas, has also generated concern and interest. Berta has heard from several people who said they elected to move closer to Puget Sound in order to be nearer to whales.

Langley has wholeheartedly embraced its identity as the “whale city,” from the whale bell to the Wishing Whale sculpture to the Langley Whale Center. The latter was first opened by the Orca Network in 2014 and has since moved locations twice.

The volunteer-run educational center serves as a mini museum and gift shop for whale lovers, who can view skulls of the massive mammals displayed around the perimeter, listen to fish farts in a sound booth and purchase colorful dish towels embroidered with orcas.

The Orca Network has also branched out over the years to offer a number of educational and advocacy programs, including the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Garrett and Berta are both continually amazed by the massive beings that inhabit Puget Sound.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, what religion or politics you follow, whales have that effect,” Garrett said. “It’s whale magic. It has an effect on human beings almost inevitably.”

“I like to say they reach us on a level we don’t understand,” Berta said. “It’s a spiritual level in some ways.”

She described several unusual encounters, some of which involved whales showing up on time for ceremonies. Ralph Munro, the former secretary of state for Washington, was leading a memorial service on San Juan Island in 1999 for J6, a member of the J pod of Southern Resident orcas. Right at the ceremony’s beginning, J pod members swam by and J6’s sister breached six times.

“That gives me goosebumps,” Berta said. “That’s not just coincidence. Things like that have happened over and over. They have this way of knowing.”

She and Garrett have visited Tokitae over the years, holding up photos of her family members in L pod.

“I just feel like she understood,” Berta said. “Last time we were there, she swam by. She was doing circles around the pool and every time she got in front of us, she would do a tail wag.”

With a new owner set to take over at the Miami Seaquarium soon, the couple is hopeful the release of Tokitae — or Sk’aliChehl-tenaut, as she is known by the Lummi Tribe — may be imminent.

An inspection report released by the USDA this summer revealed some shocking truths about the captive whale’s living conditions.

“It was scathing,” Garrett said. “The conditions were horrible. The veterinarian basically was completely overruled and ignored and so no protocols were followed, essentially. The water quality was either horrific and full of algae or it had way too much chlorine. She wasn’t getting fed enough.”

In addition, Tokitae had sustained an injury to her jaw and was advised not to do any head-first jumps into the water. This advice was ignored and she was made to perform the jumps anyway during her shows.

Critics who have argued against her release have said that the ocean water would be foreign to her. Garrett countered that these arguments are unfounded. Tokitae has been heard making calls that are distinctly used by her pod.

“They show that she still uses those, that she didn’t just lose her past, that she’s still a Southern Resident in her own memory and her own understanding,” Garrett said. “The whole industry and most of the world underestimates orcas, to not recognize they are members of families and societies and they have deep cultural roots. She still has those.”

There have also been concerns about her age. At 56, she is considered geriatric, but as Garrett pointed out, that doesn’t mean she won’t have any time left to enjoy retirement. On the contrary, her presumed mother, L25, is 90 years old.

The challenge will be finding a place for her to retire, something the Lummi Tribe is currently working to figure out.

“Boy, the heat is on,” Garrett said. “They better find a place and get ready for her, because I think she may be coming home soon.”

Numbers of orcas in the wild seem to be holding steady, with some impacts from climate change and other factors.

“We know the pollutants are causing some harm to their reproductive systems in combination with lack of salmon,” Berta said.

The common misconception people have about Berta and Garrett is that they are always out on boats tracking the whales. In reality, the couple serve as the conduit for Orca Network. Just like Tokitae, they’d like to retire at some point.

“I want time so we can go watch the whales again,” Berta said.

She is looking forward to seeing the next generation take the nonprofit organization on.

“We’re making the foundation so Orca Network can keep going for as many decades as we have whales around,” she said.

Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record
Orca Network founders Susan Berta and Howard Garrett recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of their whale-sighting nonprofit organization. The couple united over their shared passion for whales, which has driven their relationship over the years.

Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record Orca Network founders Susan Berta and Howard Garrett recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of their whale-sighting nonprofit organization. The couple united over their shared passion for whales, which has driven their relationship over the years.

Susan Berta and Howard Garrett, dressed in full whale garb at a previous event. (Photo provided)

Susan Berta and Howard Garrett, dressed in full whale garb at a previous event. (Photo provided)