Whidbey welcomes back special guests

— Created April 12, 2023 by Kathy Reed

Clarence Hein Photo Courtesy of Orca Network
A group of gray whales which comes to feed in the north Puget Sound each year, called the Sounders, has returned to the waters surrounding Whidbey Island. Those interested can celebrate their return this weekend at the Welcome the Whales festival and parade.

By Kathy Reed

This weekend is the perfect time to dive in and celebrate the Orca Network’s annual Welcome the Whales festival and parade.

After two years of virtual celebrations, there are festival activities planned both Saturday and Sunday in Langley, according to organizers.

Photo Courtesy of Orca Network
The Welcome the Whales parade, to be held Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in Langley, is free to attend and anyone is welcome to don a costume representing their favorite marine animal and join the fun.

“Saturday at 11 a.m., we will gather at the Langley United Methodist Church for costume making and displays from Orca Network and some of our partner groups,” described Cindy Hansen, education, outreach and advocacy coordinator for Orca network. “At 1:30 p.m., our Welcome the Whales parade will take place through Langley, ending at Seawall Park for music and a blessing. Then we will gather back at the church for a hybrid, in-person/virtual presentation about gray whales from Cascadia Research Collective.”

Sunday’s activities include a beach cleanup at 10 a.m. Those who wish to participate will meet at Whale Bell Park. At 2 p.m., there will be a Gray Whales Cruise fundraiser with Puget Sound Express. Cost for the cruise is $100 per person, and proceeds benefit Orca Network’s Langley Whale Center.

Welcome the Whales festival marks the return of a group of about 20 gray whales called the “Sounders.” Every year this group breaks off from the rest of the Eastern Pacific gray whale population during their migration northward from Baja, Calif., to feed on ghost shrimp in north Puget Sound.

“They all seem to have found this area during times of low food abundance when they otherwise may have become malnourished, and have continued coming back each year,” Hansen said. “This is a testament to how resilient, adaptive and amazing they are. Photogrammetry research from Cascadia Research Collective and SR3 (Sealife Response, Rehab, Research) has shown that the Sounders gray whales dramatically improve their body condition when they are here, which underscores the importance of these ghost shrimp in their diet.”

Jill Hein Photo Courtesy of Orca Network
Two gray whale “besties,” #21 Shackleton and #22 Earhart, are back again this year, seeking out each other’s company after their arrival in late March.

Hansen said two gray whales in particular, #21 Shackleton and #22 Earhart, seem to have a special bond.

 “They were the first two Sounders observed by Cascadia Research in 1990 and they were traveling together at the time,” she said. “Over 30 years later, they still spend time feeding and socializing with one another. When Shackleton arrived in north Puget Sound on March 26 this year, it seems he immediately went and found his old friend, as they were seen together later that day and for many days afterward.”

Another whale is being honored this year as well, although it is bittersweet.

Photo Courtesy of Orca Network
The gray whale replica used in the Welcome the Whales parade is modeled after Sounder whale #49, Patch, who is believed to have died. This year’s Welcome the Whales events are being celebrated in his honor.

“Patch (#49), was one of the original Sounders gray whales and was the most consistent, being seen each year since he first arrived in 1991,” explained Hansen. “He was a local favorite and Cascadia Research describes him as ‘one of our earliest identified, most photogenic and beloved whales.’ Sadly, he has not been seen since 2020, so it seemed appropriate to dedicate this year’s festival to him. Our big gray whale in the parade is named Patch and was created in his likeness.”

A commemorative Patch T-shirt has been created by San Juan Island artist Jenn Rigg and will be available for purchase and there will also be buttons made by one of the whale center’s volunteers.

“We hope festival attendees will also remember Patch and continue to tell his story,” Hansen said. “Fundraising efforts such as the T-shirt and the gray whale cruise on Sunday help support our education and advocacy efforts around the Salish Sea, including our Langley Whale Center.”

The Langley Whale Center, which opened nine years ago, is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday, and has become a popular stop to learn about not only whales, but other sea life.

“Visitors to Whidbey Island love to come and learn about our local whales and locals often bring visiting family and friends,” said Hansen. “The Whale Center also has some great, engaging kids’ activities and a wonderful gift shop and the staff and volunteers regularly hold special events for all ages. Our goal is to teach visitors about Salish Sea whale species in a fun and engaging way that inspires them to take action to protect the habitat these whales rely on for their survival.”

Photo Courtesy of Orca Network
The Welcome the Whales parade Saturday will end at Seawall Park in Langley, where there will be a traditional blessing.

Hansen said attendance at the parade can range anywhere from 100 to 500 and said not knowing is part of what makes the event so much fun.

“It is so fun to see everyone dressing up as their favorite animal and gathering together to show their respect and love for our local gray whales,” she said, adding it’s not too late to participate. “The parade promotes a feeling of community and stewardship to protect these beautiful whales and the habitat they rely on. If people want to walk in the parade all they need to do is come with a costume (either one they already have, or they can make one at the church that morning) and meet us at the US Bank parking lot in Langley. Staging begins at 1 p.m.”

The Welcome the Whales festival and parade is a truly unique Whidbey Island experience that aims to be fun and educational. Learn more about it at orcanetwork.org. “There aren’t many parades and festivals out there dedicated to one group of animals,” Hansen said about what makes this event special. “It is heartwarming to see so many people show up in love and admiration of gray whales during this event. The Sounders are teaching us new things all the time, and they have made us rethink so many things we thought we knew about gray whales.”