Animal Magic

Animal magic, or Messing about by the water

Our visit to the San Juan Islands, the archipelago west of Seattle, was planned to see orcas. But alas the weather hadn't read the script and unending rain and high winds meant that the waves were too high for decent visibility and safe passage. All trips were suspended and no boats expected to go for a few days. No killer whales, no seals, no sea birds. Rats!

With a heavy heart, we quitted the San Juans early and headed south back towards San Francisco. We realised though that we'd now gained some extra time and headed to Santa Cruz to pick up once again on the challenge of sea life-spotting. I wouldn't fulfil my ambition of seeing killer whales but weren't we due some luck?

We guessed which way to head as soon as we reached the pier - needing only to follow the strange discordant barking, and the fishy smell.

Yes, there he was, angling his head such that his nose caught the bright California morning sunshine, a ray playing on his whiskers and glancing off a bead of water on his black nose. He flattened back his ears and exhaled a gentle snort, seemingly vastly contented with his lot.

His peace and solitude didn't last long however as other members of the colony wanted space on the pontoon, returning perhaps from fishing. One by one, they inelegantly hauled themselves out and greeted each other. Soon half a dozen of his fellows were jostling for his sunspot, and room to preen, awkwardly scratch with rubbery flippers, or just to snooze.

A smaller sea lion returned from swimming and tried to find a space to hop up onto the pontoon. The larger beasts gathered together to bar his way, barking and baring small white teeth - some adults bore scars to attest to their sharpness. The pup yelped in protest but patiently trod water, edging back and forth to seek out an access point, occasionally receiving a nip for his pains. Silently, I cheered him on. Eventually, he made it up and sat in the corner, slowly edging towards the sunny spot.

Back up on the pier, we wandered past the lighthouse to a view across the Pacific. We weren't planning to stay long but lingered when we made out a peculiar little two-headed, winged creature, bobbing and shape-shifting on the water. Our binoculars revealed it to be two creatures : a sea otter on its back, clutched a shellfish in its little claws to its rounded belly; the other a gull, hopping and skirting round the otter, trying to get it to defend itself and drop the dinner which it was working on opening. At length, two heads became three as another gull joined the scrap, and the otter turned and arched its silvery glistening back and was gone, presumably giving up its prize.

Flocks of pelicans gracefully flew past in ordered rows of half dozens; sometimes high above us, sometimes so low that their wing tips seemed to graze the waves.

Suddenly, another diversion entered as if from stage left : white-sided dolphins. Racing and leaping, circling and diving. Quicksilver flashes. And, just as quickly, the pod was gone, onwards with the fish they hunted. Whew.

Now we catch our breath. Maybe it's time to move on for a spot of lunch?

No. A hushed whisper is passing through the small crowd who've gathered to watch the dolphins.

Tentative, quiet, but hopeful : "Whale...?"

A pause. Then more certain.


Sure enough, there's a tell-tale puff of misty breath through my binoculars. A shimmering grey-finned back. And finally a fluke, raised high in profile against the sky and brought down hard, slapping the water. The crowning glory - and yes it's breath-taking.

Duncan Gittins

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