Why he was called Crunch could lead to wild speculations, but Crunch was the name of this sea faring character, who could drink you under the table and keep you there with an endless barrage of jokes and tall tales. From out on his fishing boat, word had come down from Crunch through his wife Sally that killer whales were out on the reef, turning the ocean water red as they churned the prolific seals into their own moveable feast.
Sally was another singular character, and as an identical twin she could relate many of those highly coincidental twin stories. More than once, in her job of daily interactions with the public, she had been called by her twin’s name, Ellen, from people who had no idea that she even had a twin. And from my wife Carlin, who worked with Sally, I got the call– an orca pod had moved into the outer reef area.
Although I was in the middle of my daily work routine on this fine Spring day, I made a quick decision and a 35 minute drive to arrive at the road’s end and its cliffs overlooking the open ocean. Full of excitable anticipation, I scanned the reef, which consisted of monolithic sea stacks and emerging rocks scattered down the coastline, including one with a sandy beach that was large enough to be called an island and served as a continual pinniped playground.
Luckily, the tide was high enough to deepen the channel between the reef and the cliff- walled shore and almost immediately I spotted telltale black dorsal fins cutting through that channel. As I eagerly skidded down one of the sharp embankments leading to the basalt fortifications that held back the restless Pacific, little did I know that what would follow would be the most impressive, by far, of all the wildlife interactions I had ever witnessed.
By the time I reached the rock ledges at the base of the cliffs, the pod of five whales had broken formation into different directions, confounding my ability to track them. With patience and a perch protruding into the channel directly above the surging swells, my expectations were finally fulfilled, as a large adult streamed down the channel and prepared to turn the corner right at my position. As it made the turn, the splendid animal rolled completely out of the water in a magnificent display of black and white power and grace, so close I could feel the mist of his splashes.
Thoroughly ignited and intent on following the whale action, I scampered along the ledges, hopping over and around the rifts and boulders. The moderate ocean swells of the afternoon filled the occasional chasms, picking up speed and force as the clefts narrowed, until slamming the dead ends with a crescendo of spray and a final lingering of mist.
Suddenly I came upon a tremendous stirring of the already vigorous sea, as a random black dorsal fin or fluke edge would briefly shoot up and re-submerge into the roiling kelp beds. As the kelp rolled up in sprawling masses, hurtling froth in all directions, it was obvious another leviathan of some sort was wrestling with the orca. With such an oceanic sized arena in play, a gray whale under attack was my first assumption, and on the next roll and splash the side of a whale size body emerged. But it was a large mass of unmistakable russet brown, and in jaw dropping amazement I realized it had to be a sea lion, a very large Steller bull that was not giving up the fight. They continued around and around, froth and seaweed spinning out of control in their mad tango, yet there was not any blood tainting the aqua sea.
Finally it was over, still with no blood showing. The big bull emerged, lodging himself up against a crowded ledge of rocks. Facing outward towards the whale, he backed himself into a defensive position, not completely out of the water and still within easy reach of the orca. The bull made no attempt to scramble to higher ground, but maintained his defiant position, and as the orca breezed on by, I am sure the big Steller proverbially “flippered” him off.Was the orca just playing? Was the large Steller sea lion too much for him? Did the sea lion out match him? A large bull can weigh a ton, but transient orcas are notorious predators of sea mammals and weigh many tons. However, in this instance, the golden gloves must go to the Steller Sea Lion.
Fully absorbed into this theater of nature, I followed the orca line of sight around yet another rock outcropping and into a calmer cove. Here, the waning sun striking the sheer cliffs cast a rosy hue, and a translucent blue reflected from the endless sheet of ocean water. Drinking in the final stages of this empirical episode, I followed a segment of the orca pod on their leisurely patrol of the large cove.
After a roundabout sweep, one extra curious cruiser extended his head vertically out of the water for a look around. Relaxing in his spy hopping position, the whale seemed to make the secluded cove his own as he took his time surveying his surroundings, which included this solitary human staring back at him. Slowly, he subsided from his position, and joining his fellow pod members, all five whales followed the cliff walls and casually disappeared to the South.
Where on Earth?! Cape Arago, Oregon, USA