Inextricably linked with salmon for tens of thousands of years, the Southern Resident killer whales intertwine with Chinook salmon as the pinnacle totem symbol of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the other reason we're here is because of salmon - my husband studies the impact of dams across the PNW on salmon populations.
So my boys are no strangers to stories and data and science-driven soliloquies on all things Nature. Because here's the thing. What our boys learned on San Juan Island is the antithesis of what a captivity-based theme park can ever give them. And yet even here in "the wild," the looming specter of the capture era darkens the Salish Sea. Before we boarded the ferry from Anacortes to San Juan, we took the boys to Penn Cove on Whidbey Island.
The week before, I'd shared the documentary Blackfish with the boys, so they knew about Penn Cove and the capture era - when it finally ended, it had ripped away or destroyed close to a third of all Southern Residents.
[WARNING: Graphic videos. To see what happened in Penn Cove, watch this short segment of Baby Wild Films Presents: The Killer Whale People or read Orca Network's overview of the capture era. You can learn more in from the documentary film Blackfish.]
When we got to Penn Cove a little while later, and we stood on the dock overlooking what happened all those years ago, the boys were somber.
"Someone should build a huge statue of an orca jumping up out of the cove, as a memorial," my older son said.
"They never came back again?" asked the younger one.
"No, sweetie. Ever since the Penn Cove captures, not one of the Southern Residents has ever come back here ... ever."
So the next day, when the boys see the wild whales for the first time in their lives, I know they have a context for what they're about to see The naturalist gave us a heads up a few minutes ago, "The whales are coming!"
The boys run ahead and scramble down the tidal boulders next to Lime Kiln Lighthouse. We find the perfect spot, right down by the water and wait. I glance at my husband over the boys' heads - they've both got binoculars glued to their eyes.
"There they are Mommy!" screeches our younger son. I hear the shutter clicking as our older son zooms in. I hear him draw in his breath.
"They're so big," he whispers from behind his camera.
I look at my boys as they behold the hallowed, highly evolved, epically intelligent and social orcas swimming just offshore ... whales who've been forever impacted by an era of human folly. And I understand that - now, today, in our era of domination-the whales and our children are just as inextricably linked as the orcas with the salmon.
A month later when I tell them SeaWorld plans to build bigger tanks, and that they want to keep breeding their captive whales instead of retiring them, the younger one's face goes flinty: it's a look I'm starting to recognize.
"Why would someone rather sit around a tank watching a really unhappy orca do tricks, with hundreds of other people sitting there, too...when you could be out on the ocean seeing them free and happy?"
That, is one of the biggest questions of our time.
The Real Sea World