L pod comes back, but makes a quick u-turn

Returning from Seattle on the 4:20 p.m. ferry Tuesday, Oct. 9, Manette’s Ed Melendez needed his frayed nerves calmed. He’d just finished watching the Seattle Mariners lose a playoff baseball game, 5-0 to the Cleveland Indians, at Safeco Field.

Soon enough, the ferry’s first mate announced a pod of orcas was near the ferry as it transited Rich Passage.

After debarking, Melendez raced home, strapped his 17-foot Sela kayak to his car, and headed for Bachmann Park at the base of Trenton Avenue.

Within minutes he was chasing what appeared to be 15 orcas and not worrying about the Mariner loss.

“I’ve been waiting for five years,” said Melendez, an engineer for Lockheed at Subase Bangor. “I got close enough to hear them.”

Melendez did not get to see the orcas who appeared in Dyes Inlet in 1997.

When the orcas headed out Rich Passage toward Bainbridge Island and back to sea, Melendez strapped his kayak back on his car.

As many as 30 people crowded Bachmann Park to watch the orcas, which were blowing air while swimming an estimated 1,000 feet out in the channel. Excited residents gathered with video recorders and cameras.

“You can hear the sound they make,” said Glenn Gehring of Manette. “I was real impressed. I was living in Seattle the last time the whales were in Bremerton.”

Port Orchard resident Flavia Ross had quickly driven around Sinclair Inlet to get a better view of the orcas from Bremerton. She was at Bachmann Park with three of her adult daughters, one son-in-law, and two grandchildren.

“We didn’t get to see them last time,” she said. “This was fun. Worth the drive.”

As Melendez was about to leave the scene, he saw a whale research boat reappear.

“I figured if he (a researcher) was back, the whales were too,” Melendez said.

He relaunched his kayak and soon was having the experience of a lifetime paddling among the orcas.

“It was just awesome,” said Melendez. “I could hear their sounds 800 feet away. It’s like a loud exhaling, a strong breathing sound.”

Melendez knows his experience was special because few other boats were on the water.

“That was the best part of it,” he said. “I was mostly alone. I swear I could see their eyeballs. The only regret I have is that I didn’t have a chance to share it with a friend.”

Melendez said he thought the orca sighting in 1997 near Silverdale became an extravaganza.

“There were so many people, they were beating the water trying to get the whales to come up,” he said. “You could almost walk from boat to boat.”

But on Tuesday, it was mostly Melendez and the whales.

“It was so peaceful. There was no fear. On my part or theirs. It was very calming,” he said.

By 3 p.m. Wednesday, L pod was back near its normal location, off Lime Kiln Point on the west side of San Juan Island.

Melendez has one other regret — he didn’t get photos of his experience.

“I was trying to get everything set with my kayak,” he said. “My camera was not on my mind.”

Will orcas return to Silverdale?

After a cameo appearance in Sinclair Inlet Tuesday afternoon, the 43 orcas of L pod were back in the San Juan Islands 24 hours later.

Ken Balcomb, executive director and founder of the Center for Whale Research confirmed the pod swam past his home just after 3 p.m. Wednesday on the west side of San Juan Island.

That didn’t surprise Balcomb, who said hungry orcas can swim 75 miles a day. Balcomb said the pod had been “restless” recently in the San Juans and that local orcawatchers had not seen them for four or five days.

Fellow researcher Mark Spears, of Alki Point, had been following the orcas Tuesday and his conversations with Balcomb about their characteristics confirmed that Tuesday’s visitors were the same L pod that visited Silverdale in 1997.

Balcomb said the pod was probably foraging for salmon near Bremerton.

According to Richard Stoll, a Poulsbo-based aquatic biologist, there currently are not many salmon in Sinclair Inlet, and that’s probably why the pod stayed just a short time.

However, Stoll said what could be a significant chum salmon run up Chico Creek could begin in “one to three weeks” in Dyes Inlet. Stoll said the majority of those chum will weigh between nine to 12 pounds each. That might interest the orcas — Balcomb said adult orcas eat 200 pounds of fish per day.

Balcomb said experts disagree on whether the pod would make a extended return visit to Dyes Inlet.

“I think it would be unlikely,” Balcomb said. “One chance in 25. But then again, if that is where the fish are and the Chico Creek chum are running, it is certainly not out of the question that they would go back in there.”

He does expect them to return to the Bremerton area perhaps twice more before the holidays.

Balcomb disagrees with his son and researcher Kelly Balcomb-Bartok, who believes the pod was “trapped” in Dyes Inlet in 1997 because they were afraid of Bremerton’s Warren Avenue Bridge once they passed under.

“They are not afraid of bridges or narrow waterways,” he said.

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