I have visited San Juan Island four times over two decades, but it wasn’t until my family’s most recent trip this summer that I finally saw an orca in the wild.
We were aboard the ferry approaching Friday Harbor when the ship slowed. A voice came over the PA system telling us that orcas were swimming past the port side. Passengers pressed against the railing to get a look. I squinted through my out-of-date prescription glasses and scanned the water. The whale-watching boats clustered together gave me a good clue where to look. Then I caught a glimpse of shiny black dorsal fins poking out of the water.
My excitement turned to sadness over the course my family’s four-night stay in Friday Harbor. We headed to the best place for whale-watching — Lime Kiln Point State Park, where red-barked madronas hug a rugged, rocky coastline. At the interpretive center, I learned that the orcas we saw in San Juan Channel were merely passing through. They were so-called transient orcas, not the famous extended clan of Southern Resident orcas.
The J, K, and L pods typically feast on salmon from Canada’s Fraser River funneling into Haro Strait west of San Juan Island from May to December. But that salmon run has collapsed. The resident orcas have failed to show on schedule over the past few years. They instead head into the open ocean west of Vancouver Island to pick off salmon originating from the Columbia River. Unfortunately, salmon populations from the Snake and Columbia rivers are reduced.
At the time we visited San Juan Island in early July, the only resident-orca sighting this season had been in April. We were too early. The orcas didn’t return to Haro Strait until late July.
As we drove around the island, we saw several yard signs advocating for breaching the Snake River dams. For San Juan Island residents worried about endangered orcas’ survival, that’s not a distant controversy given that the J, K, and L pods are subsisting on the runs of salmon spawning in the Columbia and Snake river basins.
In addition to this ecological tie to our part of the state, San Juan Island has a strong historical connection to Vancouver.
The so-called Pig War between British and Americans took place on San Juan Island. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 established the boundary 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 U.S. Army took over.
The treaty left some confusion about the San Juan Islands. It said that the boundary was to follow the middle of the channel between the mainland and Vancouver Island, failing to account for the fact that there are actually two channels — Rosario Strait wrapping around the San Juan Islands to the east and Haro to the west.
Tensions mounted in 1859. An American shot and killed a Hudson’s Bay Company pig rooting in his garden on San Juan Island, and then threatened to shoot any British authorities attempting to take action against him.
Gen. William Harney at Fort Vancouver, acting on his own, sent a company of soldiers from the post under the command of Capt. George Pickett to protect American inhabitants, according to a historical account by the National Park Service. Then three British ships arrived at the island.
Before it could turn into a shooting war, cooler heads prevailed and the British and Americans agreed to joint occupation. Finally, in 1872, international arbitration established the boundary at Haro Strait and the San Juan Islands officially became American.
You can visit the American and English Camps, part of San Juan Island National Historic Park, to learn more about the war whose only casualty was a pig. Or you can enjoy the more whimsical monument, a pig sculpture at Brickworks Events Center in Friday Harbor.
Either way, the tight ecological and historical connections make San Juan Island a worthwhile destination for Southwest Washingtonians.