Where on Earth?! Port Townsend

From the top of the bluffs lining the shore, one could look out over the restless, steel blue waters of the sound to ridges of mountains that receded in the distance and were dominated by one major snow capped peak swelling above the skyline.

To the left, the wide strait makes a sharp, ninety degree corner, and on the corner stands the lighthouse that can sweep its illuminating beam all the way past the San Juan’s to Vancouver Island.  It is around this corner that the orca pods first made their appearance, hugging the rocky coastline and, with their above water antics, entertaining any random viewers.

A young couple passing by the edge of the point were such lucky viewers as a large adult orca fully breached within a stones’s throw of these beach walkers,  which included their barely three year old child and a not so old grandmother in tow.  The awestruck little boy,  in the very beginning stages of speech, shouted out with all the might his young vocal cords could muster, “It’s Huge!”

“They rarely come in this close to the beach here, they almost always pass through on the far side of the sound,” a local marine photographer explained to me.  “These close sightings are quite unusual here, and normally they come through much later in the fall.”

‘Quite Unusual’ he said, and I could not help but fantasize that they were here paging their own art show, for it was the weekend of an annual wildlife and nature art exposition taking place in an exhibit hall within 100 yards of the beachhead.  As a noteworthy feature of this event, a wildlife species successful in the conservation realm was acknowledged each year, and participating artists were encouraged to include this animal in their artworks.

Myrtlewood Orca, 2′ x 4′ © Terry Woodall

And, you guessed it, the orca was honored as the year’s featured animal.  A large carved orca, stained in black and white orca colors and leaping over a silver gray driftwood wave, greeted visitors in the exhibit hall lobby.  Behind this orca replica was a table with headsets available for any curious listeners.

Connected to the headsets in the exhibit hall were hydro microphones dangling into the waterway from The Marine Science Center dock, which jutted into the sound directly down the beach from the lighthouse.

In the first half hour of the art show opening, the crackling hydrophones activated with unmistakable sing song pings and squeaks.  The orcas were on their way!  The biologists manning the headsets identified the orcas and the “L” pod, and claimed it was the first appearance of orcas in this part of the sound in months.

Throughout the weekend art exhibit, tremors of excitement ebbed and flowed as orcas passed by and were watched from the nearby bluffs by wildlife artists and patrons alike.

Preoccupied with activity in the exhibit hall while I showed my art works, I missed most of the orca sightings until a corner of blue visible from an exhibit hall window proved irresistible.  Breaking away for a moment, I crossed the parade grounds to the bluff edge and far out in the waterway could see a spotting boat.  With binoculars, I could barely discern the orca pod it was following as they rapidly disappeared to the South.

Suddenly there was some heavy splashing and a dark body appeared in front of a red buoy perhaps a half mile out.   Then it reappeared half again closer, and I can plainly hear its large tail slapping the water.  Two and three times I am treated to the orca antics a short distance south of the science center dock, until the whale activity waned.

Before returning to the art exhibition and with a feeling of elation I mused over  the perfect balance of wildlife and the art that this event had achieved.   This was one of those rare events in the wildlife art world when the outpouring of art and people became fully involved with the actual wildlife experience, all in the same place and at the same time.

Of course the resident pods of the region are well established, monitored and studied by scientist, and observed by hundreds of people on whale watching vessels.  But even labeled a coincidence, the wildlife art show threw a party for the orcas, and they showed.

Where on Earth?!   Port Townsend, Washington State

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