I happen to live in a place—San Juan Island in the far Pacific Northwest—that gets tons of tourists, especially on big holiday weekends like the Fourth of July. And one of the places that is most visited on the island by those tourists is in the photo above: Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse, on the island’s western side.
It’s one of my of my favorite places on the planet. One of the reasons it draws so many visitors is that it’s one of the prime places in the world to see wild whales, particularly orcas, which pass by there irregularly. It is a magical place that seems far away from the problems of the world. But there’s a hidden story there that reminds us that even in remote corners of the country, we remain connected to the rest.
It’s a naturally scenic place with sunsets that can be sublime, located near the farthest northwestern corner of the lower states. That’s Canada (Vancouver Island) across the way.
The lighthouse gets hundreds of thousands visitors annually drawn to it in large part because of this unique quality: Cetaceans—particularly killer whales, though also some humpbacks and minke whales, as well as Dall’s and harbor porpoises—are known to swim past closely. There’s a deep underwater trench below the lighthouse, rich with the abundant sealife that is their prey. Most tourists are hoping to see those whales, though in recent years the sightings have grown more sparse. Still, when it happens, it’s breathtaking.
(All of the above photos were taken from those rocks.)
The lighthouse also has several features for visitors, including an Orca Listening Station.
The Orca Listening Station lets you listen in to the hydrophone that is running 24/7 in the waters in front. Push that little button in the center and it runs for about eight minutes.
You can listen to the hydrophone yourself, live anytime, at this website.
But when you look even closer at the listening station, you realize that in addition to the local Whale Museum, this delightful installation was made possible by the Jessica Rekos Foundation. You read that Jessica loved orca whales and wanted to come see them here.
Who was Jessica Rekos? Well, this was Jessica Rekos.
Jessica watched the movie “Free Willy” with her Nana when she was 5. This sparked such an immense love for whales and specifically, Orca whales. We took her to the book store and bought her books about whales that she stacked on her nightstand, reading a little bit of each one at a time. She would set up her portable DVD player in her room and watch Free Willy, Free Willy 2, Free Willy 3, and Free Willy 4. As soon as she heard a fact about an Orca, she would pause the movie and write the fact in her notebook. She called this her “whale research.” One night as I was kissing her goodnight, she said, “Mom, I just want to be friends with an Orca…”
As her school bus approached our bus stop on the morning of December 14th, Jessica and I were discussing how to sell Girl Scout Cookies. This would be Jessica’s first time selling, and she could not wait for January when we could “officially” start making phone calls to friends and family. Jessica hopped out of the car as the bus approached and excitedly walked up the bus stairs. She sat in the front seat, looked at me through the window, and smiled and waved as the bus pulled up the hill.
That was the last time I saw Jessica alive. Less than 45 minutes later, her life was taken at Sandy Hook School.
I sometimes point out her portrait to visitors. It’s a powerful reminder that even in a place drenched in beauty, even on a tourist adventure on the Fourth of July, gun violence affects our lives, always in the most tragic and heartbreaking ways. And it’s important never to forget it for the sake of this little girl who never got to see her wild orcas.
It’s been six years since the Sandy Hook shooting. Here are the names and pictures of the 27 victims, including 20 children, who were murdered that day.
When I am fortunate enough to see the whales come by now, I think of Jessica, who would be turning 15 now. For Jessica, and all the other would-have-been “orca experts” and world explorers who have been taken from us: Your spirit lives on.
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