Whidbey welcomes the whales – virtually

— Created April 14, 2021 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

It is an 18-year tradition that will not be stopped by a worldwide pandemic. The Orca Network’s annual Welcome the Whales celebration will go virtual Friday and Saturday and will include several different events sure to appeal to Whidbey Islanders and whale lovers alike.

There two main online events: An art night fundraiser Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. and a Zoom festival from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday. Pre-registration is required for both events at https://conta.cc/3s7asaE.

The art night fundraiser Friday evening takes the place of the regular whale watch activity, which was cancelled by COVID last year.

“This is new for us,” said Cindy Hansen, education coordinator for Orca Network. “We have never done an art night fundraiser over Zoom before, and we’re looking forward to it! We have a wonderful volunteer, Jeanne Hamilton, who is a Zentangle® instructor. She enthusiastically agreed to teach a class as a fundraiser for this event and she will be putting together a special gray whale template for the class.”

Hansen said one does not have to be an artist to complete the project – anyone can do it. Cost for the Zentangle® class is $25 and all proceeds will benefit Orca Network’s education programs.

Saturday’s Zoom festival features several different elements, including a virtual Welcome the Whales parade.

“In addition to the virtual parade, we are also planning on a tribal blessing, dedication of the Wishing Whale in Langley, a ‘virtual whale watch,’ educational videos about gray whales and a research webinar with gray whale scientists John Calambokidis, Holly Fearnbach, and John Durban,” Hansen said.

According to organizers, it’s not too late to participate in this virtual parade, strange as that may seem. Photos can be sent to susan@orcanetwork.org by today to be included.

“We did a virtual parade last year for Welcome the Whales,” explained Susan Berta, co-founder and executive director of Orca Network. “After 16 years of parades, we didn’t want the pandemic to stop the parade, so we asked people to send us photos of them in their costumes, and made a video putting those photos over a background of prior parade photos. Last year’s parade can be viewed on our YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/YWUM6lbSUrA. So we are doing another virtual parade this year, our 18th year, the parade will go on!”

Hansen said the group has learned a lot over the past year about putting together virtual events and she feels those who attend will not be disappointed in this year’s offerings.

“Welcome the Whales was our first big virtual event after the pandemic began and we have learned so much since then after doing presentations, youth events, and educational webinars all year,” she said. “So we’re feeling much more comfortable with the platform and are looking forward to adding new elements this year. Welcome the Whales is very different from our other events because the festival and parade are a big part of it, and that’s challenging to convert to a virtual platform. But we’re happy with what we’ve created and are looking forward to sharing it with the public.”

Guest speakers this year include John Calambokidis, senior research biologist and one of the founders of Cascadia Research Collective. He will discuss the biology and status of the Sounders gray whales and will discuss the current Unusual Mortality Event (UME) affecting the gray whale population. Dr. Holly Fearnbach, a researcher with SR3 (Sealife Response Rehab Research), and Dr. John Durban, a population ecologist with Southall Environmental Associates, will discuss drone photogrammetry studies with both Southern Resident orcas and Sounders gray whales.

Of course, whales are the highlight of the Welcome the Whales festival. The Sounders – a loyal group of gray whales which return to the waters around Whidbey Island every year – have been back in the area since February.

“Recently there have been almost daily sightings of one or more of the local gray whales in Saratoga Passage, Port Susan and Possession Sound,” said Hansen, adding our “local” whales have seemed to fare better than others. “Gray whales are amazing animals who are currently going through a very tough Unusual Mortality Event (UME). The Sounders are a really special group of gray whales who discovered the Puget Sound ghost shrimp during times of low prey abundance and have continued to return to the area. The entire gray whale population is going through a very rough time environmentally right now, and it’s difficult to watch, but it’s encouraging to see our Sounders returning each year. We hope they are finding enough food here to sustain them.”

“We are SO fortunate to have this small group of ‘Sounders’ returning each spring to our area,” Berta said. “This is a very unique situation, where the same whales (plus new ones often showing up) interrupt their migration north to return to Puget Sound and stay to feed in one area for several months.

“As far as we know, this doesn’t occur anywhere else, and it has given Orca Network and researchers at Cascadia Research Collective a chance to get to observe and study these whales over three decades, and to get to know each individual,” she continued. “Through Cascadia Research’s work, we have learned more about the social behaviors and interactions of these whales, and how valuable the ghost shrimp beds are to sustaining this small community of grays especially during UMEs or times of scarce food up north.”

An informal, SpyHoppy Hour will follow the Zoom events Saturday. Those attending are encouraged to wear costumes and come prepared to swap whale stories.

“Welcome the Whales is our most favorite event of the year, because it is so joyful and fun, and a celebration of how lucky we are to have these grays come to visit us each spring,” Berta said. “In these times of so much bad news in the world, we are thankful that we have the return of the Gray whales to celebrate together this spring, even though it can’t be in person; and we have hopes that by next April we can once again gather together on the streets of Langley.”

Learn more about the Sounders and other whales of the Salish Sea at the Langley Whale Center, 105 Anthes Ave. in Langley, or visit Facebook.com/LangleyWhaleCenter for current hours. Or, schedule a private tour by calling 360-221-7505.

More information about Welcome the Whales is available online at orcanetwork.org. To register for the Zentangle® art event Friday or the Zoom festival Saturday, visit https://conta.cc/3s7asaE.