I’ve visited San Juan Island four times in two decades, but it wasn’t until my family’s last trip this summer that I finally saw an orca in the wild.
We were on the ferry approaching Friday Harbor when the ship slowed down. A voice came over the sound system telling us that orcas were swimming on the port side. The passengers pressed against the railing to take a look. I narrowed my eyes through my outdated glasses and scanned the water. The whale watching boats clustered together gave me a good clue where to look. Then I saw shiny black dorsal fins sticking out of the water.
My excitement turned to sadness during my family’s four night stay in Friday Harbor. We headed to the best place for whale watching: Lime Kiln Point State Park, where redbark madronas hug a rugged rocky shore. At the Interpretation Center, I learned that the orcas we saw in the San Juan Canal were just passing through. These were so-called visiting orcs, not the famous extended clan of the southern resident orcs.
Groups J, K, and L typically feast on salmon from the Fraser River in Canada that head to Haro Strait west of San Juan Island from May to December. But that salmon run collapsed. Resident killer whales have failed to show up on time in recent years. Instead, they head to the open ocean west of Vancouver Island to collect salmon from the Columbia River. Unfortunately, salmon populations in the Snake and Columbia rivers are small.
By the time we visited San Juan Island in early July, the only resident killer whale sighting this season had been in April. We were too early. The orcas did not return to Haro Strait until the end of July.
As we drove around the island we saw several road signs advocating the breaking of the Snake River dams. For residents of San Juan Island worried about the survival of endangered killer whales, this is not a distant controversy given that pods J, K and L remain on the runs of salmon spawning in the basins of the Columbia and Snake rivers.
In addition to this ecological connection to our part of the state, San Juan Island has a strong historical connection to Vancouver.
The so-called Pig Wars between the British and the Americans took place on San Juan Island. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 established the border between the British and American territories at the 49th parallel. As a result, the Hudson’s Bay Company moved its headquarters to Victoria from Fort Vancouver, which the US military took over.
The treaty left some confusion on the San Juan Islands. He said the border should follow the middle of the channel between the mainland and Vancouver Island, ignoring the fact that there were in fact two channels: the Rosario Strait surrounding the San Juan Islands to the east. and Haro to the west.
Tensions rose in 1859. An American shot and killed a Hudson’s Bay Company pig that took root in his garden on San Juan Island, then threatened to shoot at the British authorities who attempted to take photographs. measures against him.
General William Harney in Fort Vancouver, acting alone, sent a company of soldiers from the post under the command of Captain George Pickett to protect the American residents, according to a historical account from the National Park Service. Then three British ships arrived on the island.
Before it turned into a gunnery war, cold heads prevailed and the British and Americans agreed to a joint occupation. Finally, in 1872, an international arbitration established the border at Haro Strait and the San Juan Islands officially became American.
You can visit the American and English camps, which are part of the San Juan Island National Historic Park, to learn about the war in which the only casualty was a pig. Or you can enjoy the more whimsical monument, a pig sculpture at the Brickworks Events Center in Friday Harbor.
Either way, the strong ecological and historical ties make San Juan Island an attractive destination for Southwest Washingtonians.