Orca Project :
Recap, Reflections and Now What?

Orca Project 2010 Album Photos     Interspecies Communication     Indigenous and Ancient Knowledge of Dolphins and Whales

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  Orca Project 1982-2010 Overview

Dr. Randall Eaton began studying orca whales in Puget Sound in 1976 when he served on the faculties of zoology, psychology, wildlife and fisheries at the University of Washington. In 1978 he founded the Orca Society for the Study and Conservation of Marine Mammals, based at U.W., and soon attracted 15,000 members who received the full color, popular science magazine Orca: Marine Mammals and Humans, which was widely acclaimed. In 1979, Eaton funded two field research stations in Puget Sound which trained student interns from Evergreen State College, Western Washington University and Skagit Valley College. The students conducted field work in Puget Sound and in the Johnstone Strait of British Columbia. In l980, Eaton co-organized the International Whaling Commission’s pivotal conference at Smithsonian which contributed to a global moratorium on whaling.  In l982, Eaton
launched the Orca Project as a volunteer field research program. In l985, ten volunteers and Dr. Eaton befriended wild orcas in B.C., and event heralded in over 250 newspapers In North America. Over 2,000 students and people of all ages from many walks of life from around the globe have volunteered to assist Dr. Eaton's work, ranging from behavioral observations to documentation of coastal native cultures' knowledge of orcas and TV production.  Volunteers join him in the field to assist the project. The fees they pay support the costs of the project including equipment and supplies.

Volunteers receive instruction from Eaton and visiting instructors including native elders.. They learn about orca behavior and natural history first hand, and there are campfire seminars and exercises conducted on animals as teachers, interspecies communication, indigenous wisdom, environmental ethics and nature connection. There is time for singing, making music and story-telling. Volunteers also fish, kayak, snorkel or scuba dive during their visit. Most return from their wilderness experience refreshed, inspired and transformed, and nearly all become ambassadors for the Orca Nation.

Orca Project 2010

Orca Project 2010 attracted stellar volunteers who connected with Orcas island, the orcas and one another. Waves of wonderful people kept coming week after week, each with its own challenges, lessons and gifts. 

A 34-Year Odyssey

In 1966 I saw Namu at the Seattle Aquarium, but it was not until April of ’76 on San Juan Island that I began to actively study orcas.  They were the last two orcas captured in Puget Sound. I spent a month with them at Kanaka Bay before they were released and successfully evaded the scientists who wanted to radio-track and follow them. Those two orcas it turns out were transients, and they showed me a lot, enough to change my world.

After 20 seasons with the orcas I wrote a book about them and made an award-winning TV broadcast, entitled, “Orca: The Sacred Whale.”  It was then I began a search for how civilized humanity could recover a sacred connection with nature and life still found among  indigenous cultures, human and cetacean.

Taking people into the wilderness on the Orca Project had taught me much about what we are missing. I learned there the power of creating a stage in the wilderness for people to connect with the place, its creatures and the other humans in the circle. I observed how quickly groups of strangers became functioning stone age bands.  People were eager to join in community ritual and express gratitude for the orcas and eagles and our food including the salmon we caught and blessed.  I observed volunteers spontaneously helping one another work for the common good. All of us shared the joy of laughter, story-telling and campfire in orcaland. 

With their supremely stable, caring societies, peaceful nature and sustainable lifestyle the orcas exemplified much of what we are missing  The orcas had propelled me on a hero’s journey and the awareness that what we are missing is connection in every stage of our development: bonding between mother and infant; bonding of children with family and society; children bonding with nature; rites of passage that deeply bond adolescents to nature, especially to become men of heart.

There is a global social/environmental crisis because ego has become chairman of the psychic board. What we are missing is the intelligence of the heart. 

For a number of years I studied, wrote, lectured and  learned from native societies about the special role that direct participation in the food chain plays in developing a sacred connection to life. I actively promoted male rites of passage including wilderness survival; hunting; vision quest; and, art. 
Though my son Drake and I were with the orcas and 125 volunteers in B.C. in 2003, 2010 was my first year with orcas  in Puget Sound since 1995. I came back because they’re in trouble, and the best way to help them is to communicate the intelligence, wisdom and intention of these beings. That was the vision that hatched Orca Project 2010.

Of Tight Ropes and Jump Ropes

Like I said, every group is different. The first group, for example, had a number of go getters who mixed well and had continual fun.  But after three days on the water without seeing orcas, tension was mounting. Around the campfire we called a circle and asked the question, “If you left without seeing orcas what good would you have to share about your experience here?” When we went around the circle everyone realized that their anxiety about not experiencing orcas was standing in the way of being present and enjoying life. The next  day they all saw orcas.  The lesson was learned. After they left I wrote these words,

“The path of prowess is a tightrope.
The path of the heart is a jump rope!”
By “prowess” I mean ego: sooner or later everyone  falls off that tightrope.
The worst thing about jump rope is that you miss a step. The only thing that falls is the rope.

Changes in Orcaland
Everybody saw orcas this summer and every summer we’ve done the project, but things look different to me out there after 15 years away from the San Juans. Two jolts I experienced were that the orcas have much less interest interacting with people, and I suspect that comes down to working harder just to survive. Fewer salmon? For the first time ever I felt that the orcas are depressed in orcaland. In the intervening years the resident population of orcas had been classified as endangered, and pollutants in the watershed were killing newborn orcas, possibly shortening the lives of the bulls.

Our forthcoming documentary will focus on “Orca Spell,” the wonderful interactions and connections among orcas and humans in the great Salish Sea. But it also will invite viewers to support the efforts of estuarine recovery as we witnessed on Bob Connor’s place by our camp where oyster mushrooms have been planted to “eat” pollutants in the watershed.

Orcas are like humans. Both are dominant predators in their world, and now humans dominate orcas, too. As the top-level species in the oceans, they are an “indicator species” which echoes and reflects the health and vitality of the food chain below.  Stressed as they are by extreme toxicity the last thing the orcas need is a dwindling food supply. Opening the human heart to the “Mind in the Waters” is the mission, and owing to circumstances of the sea, it naturally follows that pointing towards positive action is essential for them, for us and for the oceans. 

Because life is transcendent interdependence with our circumstances we are morally compelled to take care of our environment as much as ourselves.  But the starting point is in the human heart, the purpose of producing “Orca Spell.”

Infusing the Human/Whale Connection into the Cultural Conversation

Dr. Jim Boggs and his lovely wife, Fiona, taught us much about defining our mission so that it becomes “a part of the cultural conversation," meaning are people talking about it?  We are building bridges of communication; we aim to add to the conversation that there are highly intelligent lifeforms living in the seas. That maybe we should listen, observe and relate to them as we would benevolent ETs. We wonder if it may be possible to work with the cetaceans to “serve life,” as Kristi Dranginis commented from her Mayan shaman- teacher, Martin Prechtel. To serve life. Of course. 

Prechtel’s book, Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, is truly a gem from every angle. It reveals exactly what we are missing in our life: connection.  As Rhonda LaFountaine, singer extraordinaire and weaver of the dream catcher still hanging above the altar by the campfire, said, “Everything wants to connect.”

Highlights of Orca Camp
Phil made the gorgeous fire pit. Bob Connor on whose property we camped above the beleaguered estuary has invested much for years to recover Cayou Valley as a viable salmon run. Ken Brown, who may be the funniest man alive, keeps planting more oyster mushrooms in the watershed that will absorb toxic chemicals. The site may become a premier showcase for estuarine recovery in Puget Sound without which there is little hope for recovery of salmon and perpetuation of the resident orca pods. The Orca Project salutes Bob Connor, Ken Brown, Doug Myers of People for Puget Sound and everyone who is working together to recover not only salmon but a cleaner and more productive Puget Sound. Thank you for sharing your vision and knowledge with us. We pray that Orca Project 2010 demonstrated the suitability of a learning center on Bob’s land overlooking the estuary.  Below is an excerpt of a letter I sent to Doug Myers and others regarding the future of orcas in Puget Sound.

Slam Dunk for Orcas, Salmon and Puget Sound
The key word for the future of Puget Sound has four letters. You guessed it, orca.  On my return trip by car to Ohio I stopped to see Craig Thompson in WY with whom I once taught and who is chairman of the board of the National Wildlife Federation.   I explained to him over the phone that if you want to recover salmon and clean up Puget Sound then you point to the orca. It is after all the unofficial totem of Puget Sound which I call “orcaland.” It has to be the most popular lifeform in that region, and by some measures orcas in captivity are the leading attraction on earth – quite a Cinderella story considering the State paid $50 bounty for an orca until Namu showed up at the Seattle waterfront in l965.  I said to Craig that it comes down to education, but “to educate” actually means “to draw
out of.” The way we draw people
out is the art of communication. What moves people is what opens their hearts. It helps to know something about the beauty, intelligence, grace and power of orcas, and their unique and admirable relationship with humans for millennia. That is the mission of Orca Project 2010 on Orcas Island; now we start post production on “Orca Spell,” which has stories ranging from what seem to be undeniable telepathy between orcas and humans to Rosie Cayou of the Samish Nation recounting that when her great uncle capsized a canoe at sea a bull orca brought him safely to shore and spit him out there. Thus arose his lifelong nickname, “Fishpuke.”

It helps to keep in mind that orcas are the only dominant predator on earth – lion, wolf, human and orca – that does not war with its own kind. It helps to know they are giant dolphins, rulers of their world, and though smaller females govern orca societies, the most stable known among mammals. Their history of relationship with native peoples goes off the scale: many of the northwest coastal cultures say that orcas never attacked them until they attacked the orcas. Then the orcas attacked back but only the culprits who had attacked them. And they have had peace ever since. Not the same as the bear, lion, leopard or tiger story. It helps to know that the people who admire, respect and revere the orca most are the people who know them best and for much longer than us.

When I was in East Sound at Susie’s barber shop she asked me how the summer went and I told her we got a lot of great material but that the orcas are in trouble, big trouble.  I went on to say to the three women present, “The first-born calves are dying because their mother’s milk is toxic.” A shudder moved through the room and women lowered and shook their heads muttering, “That’s awful." Yes it is awful. If you want to get people behind your important work then be wise: publicize the plight of the orca, “Mothers’ toxic milk kills baby orcas.” Open hearts and draw the people out to serve life. 

Our production will praise People for Puget Sound and its estuarine recovery projects including Bob Connor’s. Your and Ken Brown’s interviews were first-class. We plan to edit these and other stories like Rosie’s, and put them on You Tube.
We also are bringing out an online magazine about cetacean/human connection and it too will point to action like helping PPS save the orcas.  Be wise and utilize the power of the orca. It will serve you well.  We will help your cause in any way possible.

Warm regards,
Randall L. Eaton, Ph.D.
Director, Orca Project

Special Thanks to Earth Mamas
There were a few volunteers in camp who would have made exemplary ranch moms.  Like Robin Hough of northern CA who stood there
night after night cooking for thirteen people while giving directions to everyone else and holding a half-dozen conversations at once.  Or Louise Dechert who always looked like an Italian model, even went she went swimming at sea behind Albert Zeman’s sailboat. Kristi Dranginis, the team photographer, treated many of us to delicious meals for several weeks.

Sacred Circles
Rhonda LeFountaine and Sara Bogard led sacred circles with native songs, and for two sessions we were joined, inspired and entertained by co-instructor Randy Russell who is a master of rites of passage. Contact him at:

Talamanca Dolphin Foundation
Ann DiBernardinis and her husband visited orca camp in September. In the l990s they happened to take a fishing trip to southeast Costa Rica and fell in love with it and its dolphins which include a fresh water species previously unknown to exist there as well as bottlenose dolphins in the sea. These species not only interact, it appears that they have developed a third language to communicate with one another. Together they developed dolphin-watching and tarpon sport fishing which has elevated the life of the village and endeared the local people to the dolphins. See the story in the inaugural issue of The Dolphin and Whale Magazine.

Joseph Bettis Helps Orca Project, Prioritizes Orca Needs
Ann was our guest on an orca-viewing voyage aboard the 64’ vessel, Orina, owned by Joseph Bettis of Deer Harbor, WA. A retired professor of world religions, Joseph was instrumental in getting Springer, a young male orca, from southern Puget Sound back to his pod in B.C. Nobody has a clue as to how Springer became separated from his pod. Joseph is a fine writer who has agreed to tell his Springer story in our new magazine. Thanks Joseph! Visit http://www.northwestcaptain.com./

Volunteer/tutor Liz Fox of Oregon City also interviewed Joseph about the real danger to orcas in the Sound. He expressed his opinion that boat noise and congestion are the least of the orcas’ problems, that pollution that poisons them and shortage of food are significant survival factors. Orca biologist Ken Balcomb might agree since, in Bob Otis’ recent DVD, “Humans of the Sea,” Ken stated that his intimate experience for years with the resident orcas suggests to him that they not only do not avoid his boat or its noise, but if anything are attracted to it. He believes they know boats and recognize the people in them. Which also has been my experience and that of B.C. orca-guru, Dr. Paul Spong. Is accelerating regulation of whale-watching a “feel good” measure passed by politicians to make it look like they are doing something good and important? This and other issues are discussed and debated in The Dolphin and Whale Magazine, second issue.

Special Thanks

To all the volunteers and guests of Orca Project 2010.

To Bob and Meg Connor for the campsite and water.

To Bob, Ken Brown, Doug Myers and People for Puget Sound for their vision and leadership in recovering salmon and estuaries.

To Alex Callen for his considerable labor.

To Drake Eaton for running a boat safely and well. Good luck in your workouts, Drake, but your arms will never be as huge as your father’s.

To Albert Zeman, my original partner in the Orca Project as a volunteer organization, for teaching peace and for taking out project
volunteers on his sailboat.

To Randy Russell for his wisdom, wit, humor and song.

To Kristi Dranginis for her spectacular photography.

To The Dan and The Ben for entertainment.

To Denise and Dan Wilk and the naturalist staff of Eclipse Charters for superb interviews.

To Fiona Clark and Jim Boggs for advise about communication.

To Chris “The Flynn” of Alaska who flew down to help us collect footage and conduct interviews.

To Star Dewar for use of her excellent photos of Orca Project in ’94 and ’95.
To Ann and Jim DiBerardinis for their wonderful work in southeast Costa Rica.

To Rhonda for her lovely songs and dream catcher.

To Kate for her hospitality and good heart.

To Walter and Rachel Henderson for being dear friends.

To Gabriel the sacred hunter.

To Vince for his brilliance and his trailer.

To Rosie, Bill and the Samish Nation.

To Jon Young and WAS for announcing Orca Project 2010.

To the orcas of the Salish Sea: may they prosper.

To the otters of Deer Harbor.

To Mother Earth and Creator are we ever thankful.
Please help us to use your gifts wisely.

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