John, or JB as he is known by some, grew up in the 60s and loved watching the TV show “Flipper”. He was jealous of Bud & Sandy hanging with a dolphin and have it rescue them every week. He wanted a dolphin too. That love for dolphins stayed with him through college, where he went to Texas A&M and started to study marine biology. However, his junior year in college he changed majors and ended up with a Bachelor of Science in Phys Ed & Biology. He taught outdoor education and met his wife in Houston before deciding to avoid the heat and moving to Oregon.
Living in Oregon for 6 years, they would go exploring on their Goldwing motorcycle. Weather dictated where they went, and somehow one day they ended up in line to catch a ferry to the San Juan Islands. They explored the island and lucked upon Lime Kiln. Back then there was no parking lot, just some spots in the woods to park. As they walked down to the lighthouse, people were walking up telling them they just missed a group of whales go by. But they sat on the rocks and waited…and waited…for 2 hours. Just as they were about to give up they heard a loud “woooosh!” Soon they saw them, about 30 fins coming right up along shore. They were the only 2 people there. John describes the experience as magical and decided then that one day he’d live on this island.
Fast forward a few years to 1996. They decided that it was time to leave Oregon. San Juan Island would be their new home. John began to volunteer with this somewhat new program called Soundwatch with Kari Koski. For the first week of going out, he didn’t see a single whale. When he finally did, he was hooked again. He’d find every chance to get on the water.
The final hook was their first kayak trip in new kayaks. After 3 exhausting hours of where everything went wrong, suddenly they heard a loud woosh right behind his boat. His wife’s eyes were huge as she said “HUGE dorsal fin behind you!” Suddenly John was looking UP to see a massive dorsal fin that was like a Ruffles potato chip (Yup, J1). This energized him like never before. A few minutes later came another wooosh! This time J2 Granny came up right next to his wife’s boat. The rest of the trip was a blur and all they could do was smile. Now he was hooked even more.
John began working as a marine naturalist in 2000 after taking the marine naturalist training class. He started out with another whale watch company, but once he met Ivan, his current boss, he knew he wanted to work on the Western Prince. Once a spot opened up, he never looked back. For John, working on a whale watch boat combines his passion of whales along with his passion for teaching. He loves to see “the light turn on” in the minds of passengers when they see an orca for the first time and start to ask about the life history of whales and the interdependency of whales and salmon (and humans). It is rewarding for him to show people how whales have a true culture, how they have a language and family structure, and how whales go from being this “show animal” they see in captivity to an animal that is dynamic in the wild.
A scientist once told him in reference to potential factors watching whales from a boat might present, “JB, if you are doing your job right and turning your passengers into advocates of orcas and their environment, you are doing far more good than harm….” He feels extremely strongly that people who encounter wild orcas get the true magic of seeing these whales—they are not performing for our benefit, but they are behaving in a manner consistent with whales with strong social and familial structures.
John was with Soundwatch for 16 years. He was one of the 9 founding members of SSAMN (Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists), and one of the only founders still serving on the board. SSAMN was formed to ensure that naturalists working in this area all have the same knowledge base so the information they disseminate is the same He is a supporter of The Whale Museum, The Center for Whale Research, and supported Killer Whale Tales. He’s been a volunteer aboard Moja with Conservation Canines, helped aboard the NOAA ship collecting scale samples with Brad Hansen and Robin Baird, and helped from time to time with maintaining the hydrophone array with Val Viers. He also has a book in the works called Diary of a Whale Watcher that he hopes to put out next year.
As have so many others, John refers to Ruffles (J1) as “his boy”. One day a passenger asked him how often big males like Ruffles breach. He told him not often as he’s getting old and all. So jokingly, as Ruffles came by the boat I yelled “You’re old and all, but it would be awesome if you’d breach right here in front of the boat”. I had pointed to a spot just off the bow. Ruffles went down and next thing we know, he launched out of the water right where John pointed! People were stunned. The other naturalist said “we have to get you a raise…” The next day he’s out again, and tells the story of Ruffles from the day before. Jokingly again (and with camera in hand) he yells the same thing again….and Ruffles breached exactly where he pointed!!! People began to call him a “whale whisperer.”
Photo of Ruffles taken by John
John’s boat is named Wave Walker, after L88. Still considered somewhat “young”, he has high hopes that he’ll grow into the next Ruffles or Faith (L57).