Just in time for Earth Day, in this week’s Faces of the Northwest, we’ll introduce you to one of the Northwest’s utmost organizations for whale enthusiasts through an interview with its co-founders: Howard Garrett and Susan Berta. The Orca Network promotes conservation through education and awareness – and, for visitors, it offers lots for those who are interested in orcas and the many other marine creatures that call this area home.
While few people outside the immediate area are aware of it, the Whale Center in Langley on Whidbey Island is a fantastic, and free, family experience. There are also many vantage points for watching whales in Langley and throughout the island – plus it’s an easy-to-reach, centralized location to access from the north, south and east, to make for an easy day trip from Seattle, the Olympic Peninsula or points north.
The Whale Sighting Network created a handy map to show the best land-based whale watching sites in the inland waters of the Salish Sea if you’re hoping to spot some of these majestic animals – check it out here. And, without further ado, we’ll introduce you to Howard and Susan.
Can you give us an overview of your organization?
Howard: “Our mission statement says it well: Connecting whales and people in the Pacific Northwest. Orca Network is dedicated to raising awareness about the whales of the Pacific Northwest, and the importance of providing them healthy and safe habitats. Also our name is ‘Network,’ which describes our operating philosophy of involving, drawing from, and amplifying other organizations, researchers, activists, and educators on matters relating to fulfilling our mission statement.”
Susan: “Our programs include the Whale Sighting Network, Langley Whale Center, Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and the campaign to retire the orca Lolita/Tokitae from the Miami Seaquarium and bring her back to her home waters in Washington State, as well as whale-focused educational programs and events such as our Ways of Whales (January) and Orcas In Our Midst (June) day long workshops; Welcome the Whales Parade and Festival to celebrate the return of Gray whales to Whidbey Island (April); Orca Month (June); Annual Commemoration of the Penn Cove Orca Captures (on or around the capture anniversary of August 8).
How did you Orca Network get started?
Howard: “We began as Orca Network in 2001 after conducting the campaign to return the captive Southern Resident orca known as Lolita, or Tokitae, to her home waters since 1995 as a different organization. Our mission always included educating the public about the astounding and unprecedented natural history of orcas, as needed to properly tell Lolita’s family history to generate public understanding of her life before capture, but in 2001 the Southern Resident population had dropped 20% in five years to only 78 individuals, so we broadened our efforts to include advocacy for changes in human activities that were causing orcas to struggle and die at alarming rates.”
Susan: “Along with the Lolita/Tokitae campaign and educational efforts, our Whale Sighting Network which began as an informal email list to a few volunteers to share when the orcas were passing by Whidbey, and has now grown into a huge network of over 15,000 email subscribers and whale sightings shared on our facebook page (over 133,000 followers), and provides critical data to researchers and agencies about the orcas, humpbacks, grays and other cetaceans in the Salish Sea. It also provides a way for people of all ages to watch for whales from the many miles of shoreline in the Salish Sea, and become “citizen scientists” by sending in whale reports. By actively engaging people in watching whales first hand, people want to learn more and become involved in taking actions to help the whales and their habitat.”
Is there something about Orca Network that not everyone knows?
Howard: “We are closely aligned with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, as our source for information and insights into how best to help So. Residents. Also not well known is that the founder and chief scientist of CWR, Ken Balcomb, is my brother (technically my half-brother but we grew up in the same household north of Sacramento CA).”
Susan: “The Langley Whale Center!! After many years of being a cyber and event based organization, Orca Network opened the doors to our Langley Whale Center in March 2014 in Langley, Washington on south Whidbey Island. By October 2015 we had outgrown our space and moved to 115 Anthes, where we are presently located. The Langley Whale Center features exhibits about Orcas, Gray whales and the marine mammals of the Salish Sea, along with videos, a lending library, kid’s activities, an action table, and a giftshop with whale themed gifts, books, DVDs and more. The Whale Center is staffed by volunteer docents, and is a block up from Whale Bell Park where whales can be watched from shore with loaner binoculars from the Whale Center. The Whale Center is open Thursday through Sunday, 11am – 5pm, and hosts special events such as authors, researchers, documentaries and more, to educate visitors about the whales of the Salish Sea.”
When you have a day off, what are some of your favorite things to do in the Northwest?
Howard: “We sometimes go to music concerts, especially at outdoor venues like the Gorge or Chateau Ste. Michelle, to see great musicians like Lyle Lovett, Chris Isaaks, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, Santana, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Tom Petty. We’ve also enjoyed a few days in beautiful places like Klaloch, Hood Canal, Point No Point, Hadlock, Skagit River, San Juan island, and LaConner.”
Susan: “Take our pup Briar for a walk on the beach, and go look for whales. ;-)”
If you had to describe what you love about the Northwest in 3 words, what would you choose?
Howard: “Magnificent natural surroundings.”
Susan: “Water, Whales, Mountains”
Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
Howard: “Our fascination and love for orcas has opened our eyes to appreciate their complex emotional and social lives, and the lives of other whales and dolphins and animals in general, and their essential relationships to the vitality of habitats and ecosystems for their health and well-being.”
Susan: “We began Orca Network out of our fascination with and love for the orcas and other whales of the Pacific NW, but over the years, we have found much joy in meeting the MANY people who share this love for our Pacific NW whales. We are constantly inspired by the growing community of volunteers and citizens here and beyond who are working hard to spread the word and do all they can to help the whales. We have found whales to be one of those rare non-partisan issues – and are always pleased to meet so many different types of whale lovers from every background imaginable, all wanting to work toward providing the whales a better habitat and plentiful food.”
K.C. Dermody is the author of hundreds of travel articles both online and in print as well as the author of the “Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland.” She has traveled throughout the world and has a passion for imparting what she has learned from her experiences to others, but always appreciates coming home to the beautiful Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.