Watching for orcas

23 Jul

My husband and I just traveled to Orcas Island, in the San Juan Islands archipelago off the coast of Northern Washington, to celebrate our 20th anniversary. This is a picture taken there by a talented teenager named Daven, who with his family shared an afternoon on a small whale watching boat. Together, we watched for orcas, and learned how to see them.

Moving from orca watching to orca seeing is a journey of the senses. This particular hazy afternoon, the calm surface of the ocean was marked only by faint lines, as straight and evenly spaced as ruled paper. At first, we couldn’t tell what was what. Diving black cormorants, floating driftwood, rippled wakes of other boats–all drew our attention as possible orca sightings! Knowing that our captain had steered us to the place of greatest viewing opportunity, we watched the water intensely: fellow passengers would call out from  time to time that they’d seen something on the horizon. The boat tilted as we all leaned over one side and then the other to catch a glimpse. I was one of the last on the boat to know for sure that I’d seen an orca– the solitary sharp arc of a fin rising above the surface, almost to0 far away to see, but unmistakably a fin.

Then of course, we all expected to see more because we knew what to look for! I found myself fixing my gaze in the direction where the last one had been, willing another to come along the path I was swimming in my mind. This didn’t work. The orcas would slice up through the surface in unexpected places, and I’d whip around to see only a small splash. It was impossible to anticipate better by concentrating harder. We couldn’t tell how many orcas were around us, where they had come from or where they were going.  The captains knew more about where an orca might surface, but they often seemed as surprised as us.

Time passed, and the boat grew more quiet. Something shifted in me,  and I think in us all. I felt my gaze soften in focus to take in more of the horizon at once. My will to anticipate the orcas’ movements fell away, replaced with a sense of curiosity. A rhythm I couldn’t name led me to be looking just where the orcas seemed to emerge, over and over. None of us were racing around the boat to see what we were going to have missed by the time we looked! Instead, we were merely attentive. And surrounded by orcas, as Daven captured here.

And then, there were fewer and then they were gone. We could see them best when we stopped watching so hard, willing so hard for them to appear. I still see them in my mind’s eye. And what an amazing experience it still is!