Water People: On Watch With Jill Hein

This is the second in what is now the Tidal Life Water People Series. We might also call it the Tidal Life Obsessive of the Month. I’ve got a boatload of such folk to introduce you to. (Memo to Archie Grand: Suggestion for another new notebookWater People I’ve Met and Liked.)

Beach Watcher, Whale Watcher

Jill Hein loves everything about the marine environment. You’ll find her in boots and boats almost every day, working on some project geared to protecting or celebrating the waters and creatures of Puget Sound and our oceans.

Image of whale watcher extraordinaire Jill Hein

This wasn’t always true.

I met Jill in 2008 when a group of Whidbey Beach Watchers joined forces with Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria of the UW’s Friday Harbor Labs, to investigate the health of eelgrass in Island County. Sometime during that project Jill, in her charming Australian accent, mentioned that 1978, when she moved to the Puget Sound area from Australia, via the Mid-west, was the first time she thought anything about the ocean.

Having spent my entire life within a couple of miles of Puget Sound, the idea that someone who lives inland might never think about the sea shocked me. While I live far from the prairies of Kansas, I think about them and care what happens to them. What could possibly account for the reverse not being true?

Watching Whales

Luckily, things change, and now the ocean seems to be all Jill thinks about. She just returned from Pico Island, one of the Azores, where she’d gone to help researcher Richard Sears, of Mingan Island Cetacean Study identify blue whales. Her job was to ID any blues they saw, using a catalog of all the whales of the Atlantic. Another revelation – you can’t even hide in the vastness of the ocean anymore.

Sprem Whale Flukes
A sperm whale’s flukes

The whales were late this year. None showed during the week of the trip, though Dr. Sears’ 2010 expedition had seen and identified 25. Jill was disappointed not to see the blues, but happy about other sightings. “We did have sperm whales” she said, “and dolphins, hundreds of them, they’re very active.”

A self taught photographer, Jill has become famous among Whidbey whale aficionados for her photos of breaching orcas. In the Azores she got pictures of sperm whales, though they rarely show more than their flukes above water, and many shots of the common dolphins that came to play each time the boat put to sea.

Common Dolphins playing off the Azores
Hundreds of common dolphins came to play each day
three dolphins near the Azores
Common dolphins pose aesthetically for Jill’s camera

“When it’s rough, taking pictures of whales is hard. All you can do is try to guess where the animals are going to come up. Getting a good photo is pure luck. You just have to take it with a grain of salt, knowing you’ll have to dump ninety percent.”

Jill Hein

When Jill moved to Whidbey and saw Orcas from the island she was fascinated by these “incredible animals,” and attended a workshop put on by Orca Network. Now she sails regularly on the whale watching vessel Mystic Sea as volunteer naturalist and serves on the Orca Network board.

I asked her what she thought about boats chasing whales and mentioned Washington’s new 200 yard regulation.

“It’s asinine in many ways,” she said. “First of all, the old 100 yard limit was only a voluntary guideline. If it had been made a regulation it might have done much more and there’d be no need for this greater distance. The real problem for the Orcas though is not whale watch boats, but lack of salmon.” The purse seiners, she points out, don’t have to stay 200 yards away from Orcas.

By and large Jill says, whale watch boats obey the regulations and they do watch for violators. Private boats, on the other hand, are often oblivious. “They blaze right through a group of whale watch vessels, right over top of the whales, then plead ignorance.” Jill adds that she’d like to see a requirement for understanding the whale limits included in the annual boat licensing process.

While she is concerned about harassment of the animals, “When 25 boats are around I’m sure it doesn’t help them,” Jill also sees benefit in whale watching. “People from all over come to whale watch – it’s an opportunity to tell them that while the surface of Puget Sound looks beautiful, underneath is a mess of toxins disrupting the entire food chain, from the tiny crustaceans up through the salmon we eat, and the Orcas who eat the salmon. That all the things we dump on land eventually make it to the sea.”

“Tankers and container ships are a far bigger threat to whales than whale watching. They’re incredibly loud. The sound from a tanker’s engine takes a long time to dissipate underwater,  yet no one is going to do anything about that.”

Life in the Sound is fraught with hazards. Ruffles, one of the more famous of the resident Orcas hasn’t been seen since November 2010. The Center for Whale Research estimates his age at about 60 years and they think Granny, another iconic Orca, is his mother because they always traveled together. Granny is thought to be about 100 years old. A 100th birthday party will be held for her at American Camp on San Juan Island on July 2nd of this year.

Watching Eelgrass

Last spring Jill worked on an eelgrass seed planting project of her own – re-establishing the eelgrass bed in front of her Saratoga Passage home. She drilled holes in the ends of a several sections of PVC pipe. The plan was to drive these into the sand and attach bundles of eelgrass seed spathes to each.  Watching for the lowest tide, she scheduled July 11th for project kick-off. Then on July 10th she broke her heel.

Unable to mess about in boats all summer, or even get her boots on, Jill worked on other Beach Watcher, Orca Network and Marine Mammal Stranding Network projects that she could do while seated. The eelgrass team went on without her, mapping some of the beds in Penn Cove. This year she’s ready to go again and looking forward to the mapping season, which starts June 15th, and to getting back to her re-planting project.

Watching Herself

At home Jill is a Shore Steward and claims that she, and her husband Clarence, are pretty good about green living. “We have discussions, and Clarence is accepting things like moss being nice. I just got my worm bin. I carpool to all Beach Watchers stuff. We’re very frugal with our water and our septic is amazing!”

There’s your proof, Jill is enthusiastic about every bit of the water cycle.

You can find trips like the one Jill went on at Green Volunteers.

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