Whidbey Audubon honors orca protectors

Orca Network founders get Audubon group’s top award for their efforts to raise whale awareness.

On more than one occasion, Anna Swartz poked fun at the couple standing next to her.

These were good-natured jabs, the sort of thing that happens among friends at recognition dinners such as the one hosted by the Whidbey Audubon Society last week in Coupeville.

“Look at how innocent these two people look,” Swartz said.

Swartz, president of Whidbey Audubon, could say this tongue-in-cheek, knowing how tirelessly Howard Garrett and his wife Susan Berta work to raise awareness about whales and how they’ve fought to protect the endangered southern resident orca population.

Swartz presented the Freeland couple with a token of appreciation from the Whidbey Audubon Society. They received Whidbey Audubon’s Excellence Award at the group’s biennial recognition dinner June 11 at the Coupeville Rec Hall.

“Whidbey Audubon’s mission statement says that we are dedicated to the understanding, appreciation and conservation of birds and other wildlife and their habitats on Whidbey Island and surrounding waters,” Swartz said to the members in attendance. “Our excellence award is looking for people in our community and neighborhood that have these same supporting (characteristics) of our mission. I can’t think of two people who’ve done more.”

Garrett and Berta founded the Orca Network as it is known today in 2001. The nonprofit organization, an incarnation of a nonprofit formed in 1995, is dedicated to raising awareness and promoting conservation of Pacific Northwest whales.

Orca Network programs include the increasingly popular Whale Sighting Network and Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Since 1995, Garrett and Berta have been involved in a campaign to return the captive orca Lolita to her home waters in Puget Sound. Lolita is the only survivor of the southern resident orca capture in 1970 and has been at the Miami, Fla., Seaquarium since she was taken from Penn Cove.

Last year, the couple opened The Langley Whale Center to give the Orca Network a public presence on Whidbey Island.

The center has had thousands of visitors so far, Garrett said.

Swartz pointed out that Garrett also appeared in the 2013 documentary film, “Blackfish.”

“Who knew?” Garrett joked.

Garrett and his wife are longtime members of Whidbey Audubon.

“I’m totally humbled here,” Garrett said of the award. “This is unbelievable and amazing because to me, I’m in a room full of heroes. I’m in a room full of people that I look up to and that give me guidance and inspiration.”

Also recognized at the dinner was Robin Llewellyn, Whidbey Audubon’s program chairperson, for her 10 years of program presentations.

Llewellyn will be on sabbatical until next spring in time to prepare for the next Bird in Hand event at Greenbank Farm.