In this second part of our two part series with Clipper naturalist Justine Buckmaster, we chat more about whales, specifically her favorite animal, orcas. Read part one here.
What is your favorite animal to study/watch?:
Orcas have been my favorite animal ever since preschool. Seeing them never gets old or boring to me. Over the years of spending summer vacations on San Juan Island as a child and later working at Clipper, I also had unforgettable experiences with other animals, too. When I was 12, harbor porpoises also stole my heart after watching hundreds of them chuff along at the surface from shore. No animal will ever be as exciting as orcas to me, but harbor porpoises come close. I love all cetaceans and enjoy watching all of them, but we all have our favorites.
Why are orcas interesting to you?:
Whales in general have always inspired me by their size and ability to live underwater despite being air-breathing mammals like us. When I first learned about whales and the food chain in preschool, I wanted to know which ones were at the top of the food chain. I was surprised to find out that orcas, though much smaller than other whales were the apex predators of the sea. I’m still impressed by their intelligence, power and their problem solving abilities.
I recently watched a documentary where orcas were referred to as “the most terrifying predator since the T. Rex” and it’s true (if you’re an orca prey item, humans have never been killed by wild orcas)! But what I find even more impressive than their highly evolved hunting skills, is their apparent curiosity for the world around them. For being such “terrifying predators” they are also very relatable to us. We see a lot of ourselves in them, especially when they appear to be just as interested in us as we are in them.
What’s the coolest experience with orcas you’ve had?:
It’s really hard to pick just one, but the first one that comes to mind is the first time I looked into a wild orca’s eye. There’s something unforgettable about being eye to eye with such an impressive animal and wondering what they think as they mirror your gaze. This happened when I was 12 years old, on the same trip as the harbor porpoise experience. My family spent many afternoons on our vacations at Lime Kiln State Park, where the orcas often swam by and would even come close to shore on occasion. This was one such occasion. Since I was a regular visitor to the park, I had a favorite rock close to the water’s edge to watch the whales from. When I heard that the orcas were headed toward the park, I climbed down to my rock and waited for them to arrive. I didn’t have to wait very long before I heard loud slaps on the water of an orca breaching in the distance. I watched excitedly as the orcas made their way north past the park. It as a super pod! All three resident orca families, J pod, K pod, and L pod were traveling together and seemed to be socializing.
I watched excitedly as nearly 90 orcas breached, spyhopped, slapped their flukes on the surface and breathed just a couple hundred yards from where I sat. After a couple dozen orcas passed things got even more exciting when one adult female turned ninety degrees right in front of where I sat and headed straight for the shore! She surfaced again in front of me, close enough to touch if I weren’t so surprised with another orca at her side. I looked at her eye, and to my surprise, she was looking right back! Her eye looked into my left eye and then my right before she sounded and swam with her partner through the kelp. Every orca that passed after that also swam close through the kelp bed, but none of the others looked at me like the first female did. After they all passed by, I was so excited, I jumped up with my hands in the air and shouted “That was the greatest moment of my life!” Since then, I’ve looked several orcas in the eye and it never gets any less thrilling.
One last whale story:
On August 23rd, 2014 I married my husband at the top of Lime Kiln Lighthouse. Just before the ceremony I was feeling a little bit nervous, pre-wedding jitters, I suppose. I looked out the window of the house we were renting and saw a familiar cluster of whale watching boats heading north toward Lime Kiln. I asked my mother to take me to the park to see the orcas and told her it would help calm me down. She agreed and dropped me off to watch the whales as she went back to the house to finish preparations for the ceremony and bring back my dress.
I watched just half a dozen orcas slowly moving north past the park in the late afternoon light about half a mile from shore. When my mom returned and told me it was time to change into my dress while she set up the chairs and decorations, we saw an orca heading for the shore just to the north of the lighthouse. To our surprise and delight she turned south, cruising along the shoreline in the kelp. She surfaced several time close to the shore and slapped her flukes right in front of the rock I stood on. It was none other than the 104 year old matriarch of J pod, J-2 “Granny.” I felt much more at ease and tore my eyes away from the whales to change in a nearby shelter away from the guests.
When the ceremony started, the other orcas that had passed the lighthouse with J-2 also came close to shore and several more foraged and lingered in the distance. The loud blows of the closest ones punctuated the music as I walked down the aisle. Then, when the music stopped, the orcas were silent. The ceremony started at the lighthouse door and then we went to the top of the tower to say our vows. As soon as the ceremony finished and my husband and I kissed for the first time as husband and wife, my mom suddenly exclaimed from below “Justine! Humpbacks!” I looked to where she pointed but didn’t see anything. Someone laughed and said “She’s pulling your leg!” However, she insisted, and sure enough, two humpback whales surfaced side by side just south of the lighthouse heading north. Everyone got up and watched with awe and excitement as they slowly passed, lifting their impressive flukes with each dive. Orcas could also still be seen in the distance. It was perhaps, the most magical moments of my life.