My last opinion piece, written on the first day of this New Year, had an equilibrium about it all that I can no longer muster. Witnessing the impeachment hearings and the complicity of so many with Mr. Trump’s devious and defiled behavior left me utterly bereft and bewildered. My commitment to equanimity was blown into irreparable and irretrievable bits of lost intention.
I was at a friend’s house on the night of Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. I remember the precise moment his election appeared possible. I stopped watching the screen and shifted to watching my friend’s face. As soon as victory appeared inevitable, I got up and drove home. I wanted one last sleep before dealing with the actual reality of Donald Trump as president.
For three years, I kept my composure as much as possible. As the impeachment hearings were initiated and all the evidence poured forth of Trump’s lack of respect for the Constitution, the laws of the land as well as the land itself, I was heartened and reassured. Justice was on the horizon. Then came acquittal.
Since Trump’s vindication, my incredulity has done nothing but explode. My meltdown has not been good for me nor anyone else who becomes an unwitting witness. Then it was all brought up short by learning that Lopez resident, Mike Conner, had died in October. I was shocked and heartbroken and immediately brought to my knees in a realization far deeper than pissed off rage at this president.
I first met Mike in 2016 at the San Juan County Fair. Orca Relief had a booth there and he stopped and talked about his passion for the orca whales. He was a fisherman and had up-close experiences with the Southern Resident orcas. His passion for them, and for their survival was an inspiration. At the time Orca Relief was circulating a public support petition, online and on paper, on behalf of creating a Whale Protection Zone off the west side of San Juan Island. It was the WPZ Petition we were submitting to NOAA in partnership with the Center for Biological Diversity. Mike was happy to generate signatures and so began our connection. (The signatures of support for the WPZ eventually numbered close to 90,000.)
Later, Mike became a passionate part of the Lopez coalition that worked so hard to get the 650-yard SRKW protection zone on the county ballot. This effort was launched in May of last year and quickly gained more than 2,600 county signatures of support. This was almost 1,000 more than required to get on the county ballot. In August, a Skagit County judge granted a request from four whale watching companies to strike down the initiative. It was a decision also supported by the SJC Prosecuting Attorney whose legal brief said the matter was beyond the purview of a local ballot measure. It was a crushing blow.
Sometime during the summer, I learned that Mike had cancer. I did not know the seriousness of it until just a few days ago when I learned that he died on October 18th. I looked up his obituary and learned about a man who loved his family, these islands, and the Salish Sea. “Michael Patrick Conner, age 49, died October 18, 2019 after a long, inspirational battle against cancer. He faced his last difficult journey with an amazing amount of grace and positivity, keeping his legendary humor up to the very end. Mike is survived by his son, Avery Conner, his stepdaughter, Maddie Rain, his wife, Carla Jo Larmore, his mother, Marie Conner, and his father, Jim Conner. Mike will be deeply missed by many friends and family.”
The obituary reflected the passion of the man I had met oh-so-briefly yet who inspired me so much. https://www.islandsweekly.com/obituaries/michael-patrick-conner/
That he had died so soon after the decision not to allow the SRKW Initiative on the ballot was a profoundly tragic piece of information. Although we had only exchanged a few emails over the years, Mike’s expression of his love for the SRKWs and his passion about their survival was stamped firmly on my heart and helped greatly as Orca Relief continued its own legal journey to protect the SRKWs from extinction.
Mike’s passion came from his own up-close-and-personal encounter with the orcas. And, so did mine. I moved to San Juan Island almost 30 years ago and I knew nothing about the orcas. They lived in privacy back then and were not under siege by whale watching. My first sighting was early one morning along the shores of San Juan Island south of Lime Kiln State Park (now Land Bank land—Oh, yes!). An entire pod was feeding and frolicking in the kelp beds right offshore. I was stunned and speechless. Later that same month I saw two pods greeting each other. There are not words to describe their exuberant celebration of being together. At that time in my life they were the very indication of the miracle of life-on-earth that I needed. I had moved to San Juan Island as part of my recovery journey from childhood trauma. The shores and the orca whales became my healing companions. A few years later when, as Superintendent of County Parks, I was faced with the possibility of Jet-ski whale-watching tours launching from San Juan County Park, I said “No.” It was a simple and logical response with a passionate foundation. I had no idea it would turn into a lawsuit that would end up in the WA State Supreme Court. But it did. And, ultimately, after years of dispute, the health and safety of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants were upheld. It was a decision that echoed across the country and enabled national parks and areas to protect life in their own waters from the invasion of Jet-ski noise and disturbance.
And, so began the convergence zone that resulted in my working with Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance.
In 2016, Orca Relief and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a Petition to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to establish a 10-square-mile Whale Protection Zone in the SRKWs core critical habitat off the west side of San Juan Island. After three years of non-action by the federal government, Orca Relief and CBD sued for lack of response to the WPZ Petition. the response was an outright denial of our Petition. ORCA and CBD are now contemplating the next action, but it is clear there will be no useful response under this current federal administration. Life-on-earth be damned.
As I wrestle with my outrage I am inspired by the devoted passion of Mike Conner. He did not give up in his effort to save the SRKWs. Nor did he give up his compassion, his humor, or his equanimity. Thanks to Mike, how to hold on to it all in the face of it all is my new challenge. I do not want to give up the love I feel for the natural world by extinguishing it with outrage. I want my love of it all to survive it all.
I was told that on the day Mike’s body was transported to the mainland, the SRKWs surrounded and circled the ferry he was on. It stopped for more than ten minutes to respect the safety of the orcas. Thank you, Mike Conner, for being a beacon of courage, commitment and compassion. May your legacy live on. May the SRKWs be saved from extinction.
Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 29 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."