San Juan Island saved my life.
It was in the late 80s; I was in the midst of an active playwriting career when I was commissioned to write two plays for sexual abuse prevention—one, “Truth and Consequences,” for junior high students, the other, “Everybody But Me,” for high-school students. Researching and writing those plays became part of the catastrophic convergence zone that took me down in a tsunami of memory. I discovered it was not normal to have total amnesia about the first 16 years of one’s life. And I discovered that healing means remembering, which means heading into a relentless hell realm.
There was a life-saving therapist, a year cooking at a silent retreat, a runaway life in San Francisco, a slow & trepidatious return to “reality;” and an utterly unexpected weekend away—to San Juan Island. I stood on the shores of South Beach in awe and in tears. “If I lived here, I could always come to this place,” was my instant reaction to its beauty. Its healing beauty.
When I moved to the island, I found solace in silence–and in the sound of the orca whales breathing their way past the cabin on the west side, where I was so lucky to live. I walked away days at American Camp and I remember the precise moment I stumbled across Granny’s Cove. I saw my first eagle in its own wild world and learned to spot that white spot in the trees that told me it was there. I was brought back to life by the natural world. Literally.
Over the years, the natural world took on an unnatural hue. At American Camp, they gassed the rabbits and the entire eco-system changed. Starving foxes begged for food from humans. The raptors above the prairie disappeared. Trees were cut down to restore the first white man’s view. Poisons were used to kill plants that were unbecoming for one reason or another. And outside the National Park, offshore in the Salish Sea, it was no longer the breathing orca whales that named themselves in the waters, it was the whale-watching boats.
When I first starting “looking for the boats” so I could find the whales, I was oblivious to the implication. But not for long. Soon, I could no longer watch for whales on the west side. That pure and invigorating moment of seeing them soar by or spend leisurely hours in the kelp beds with their family, or stream along in silence was gone. They had become entertainment in their home territory, trapped and harassed in the very heart of their foraging waters. And yes, I have gone out whale-watching. And, yes, I loved it—until we raced off to find the whales.
One day in early summer, a friend, who was a naturalist on a whale-watching boat, called me to say there was room on the boat and did I want to go out—for free. “Yes,” I said, with only a moment’s pause. (This was years before I started working with Orca Relief.) The invitation came from the kind heart of a friend who knew I couldn’t afford to pay to go out. I put my inner concerns on hold, headed offshore, and hoped for a positive experience.
The first half-hour was magic. We cruised slowly to the waters near Turn Island, where we stopped, looked, listened, and felt. Our naturalist guide shared all the wonders of life on the shores and under the waters. We were a small group of about a dozen people. Floating quietly, breathing in the bright air, rocking to the tune of it all was a lovely and bonding experience. It felt as though we were part of the natural order of things.
Then, with hardly a moment’s notice, we were suddenly speeding through the waters. The captain had been informed about the whereabouts of the orcas. It was a bouncing high-speed chase of close to half-an-hour up into border waters. All the quiet intimacy of being with nature was shattered. Our intimacy with one another was shattered. Once our destination was reached, a hundred yards away was a line of swimming orcas. We were told that we were seeing Granny and her clan in transit.
Suddenly, all the relating to, and being comforted by, the natural world faded into oblivion. I averted my eyes, berated myself for my lack of enthusiasm, and felt sad beyond measure. It was no longer a natural beauty that we were part of—it was photo-op time. No longer a sacred interdependence, it was a human invasion of noise, disturbance and thrill-seeking. Our own existence was no longer enough. The guarantee was to see whales, not to be comforted, inspired, and nurtured in community with one another and the natural world.
I’ve contemplated this a lot as my public work with Orca Relief has alienated people from me in ways large and small. In degrees of eye-contact, intimacy of conversation, and meet-on-the street encounters, my activism for the Southern Residents is continually coming up against whale-watching industry supporters and participants. This has been deeply saddening and disturbing.
Those of us who are calling for protection of the SRKWs from noise and disturbance are not trying to destroy an industry. We are trying to save a population of sacred orca whales.
I had a priceless half-an-hour out on the waters. Why cannot this be the experience that is offered to visitors? It is an experience that is always guaranteed, and it does not require gas consumption and pollution, nor does it guarantee noisy and disturbing intrusion into the home territory of critically endangered Southern Resident orca whales. If the whale-watching industry could become “Nature Tours” and focus on all there is to offer that nurtures soul and spirit, it would save a lot more than the Southern Residents.
What we have to offer visitors to this county goes far beyond a sound-byte, photo-op high-speed chase. It is connection to the natural beauty of earth, wind and wave and all the natural inhabitants therein. It is peace-of-mind-and-being. All of us who live here in these islands came here for a reason: We love the natural beauty of this place. I do not always remember this—but it remembers me—and when I go for my hikes at South Beach, the restoration is as strong as it was nearly 30 years ago. I get my bearings back. And this is what we could offer visitors if we embraced an authentic eco-tourism ethic that puts people, place and planet first.
When I first moved here, it was the long-established island families who were recoiling from the changes being brought about by newcomers and a new comprehensive plan. Not that long ago, the discussion was all about how to keep from becoming another Martha’s Vineyard. That first controversial “comp plan” has hopefully redeemed itself in the eyes of those who battled against it. Today, driving out of town means entering the sustaining grace of the natural world. I remember when I drove a bus for a few summers. All the passenger chattering would suddenly stop as we turned the corner onto San Juan Valley road. A peaceful quiet would settle throughout the bus as visitors took in what I did on that first visit—awe, reassurance and a deep sense of the inherent peace-of-mind found in the heart of nature.
How do we preserve the very essence of what makes San Juan Island so special? It will take “unpopular” decisions that honor the future of the entire eco-system not just the here-and-now economic system. The local question that arises is a close-up-and-personal version of the global question: Do our actions reflect our concern about the continuity of life-on-earth for generations to come?
Our connection to nature’s undying beauty is a private, priceless and wordless experience. The brutality of the times we are in now—from the desecration of the environment to the cruelty perpetrated against human beings—makes our need for solace of body, mind, soul and spirit an even greater imperative. It is what San Juan Island has to offer in these difficult times. There is no greater gift. Doing everything we can to save our Southern Resident orca neighbors means preserving the future and the very meaning of life itself.
And that is even good for business.
Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."