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The Faces of San Juan Island – Melisa Pinnow

Last week, dozens of researchers, scientists, former trainers and whale enthusiasts (Self-proclaimed “Orca-dorks”) joined together for the annual event – Superpod 3. Individuals traveled from near and far to join together for whale watching, nightly lectures and socialization in our own “pod” of sorts.

The whales were the celebrities of the week with daily sightings along the West side of San Juan Island. Their majesty is a sight to behold, leaving no doubt that this is the way they were intended to be viewed. Breaches, spy hops and fluke splashes were all part of the show…on THEIR terms.

Whether it was the first time seeing orcas in the wild or a return visit, the people of San Juan Island could not have been more accommodating. The locals on the island have a contagious enthusiasm for the island and it’s endless gifts.

One of those inspiring islanders is Melisa Pinnow. Melissa has lived along the coast of San Juan Island her entire life. At only 20 years old, she is dedicated to spreading current news about cetaceans.

In 2010, she started working for San Juan Excursions aboard the Odyssey. In the beginning, she was the snack bar attendant, but as she formed a passion for the orcas, especially the Southern Resident orcas, she became a certified marine naturalist. When she is not out on the Odyssey, she’s watching the orcas from shore or other boats, hanging out with friends, or adding to her website:

Melisa finds it surprising that all these amazing marine animals were around her for her entire life but she never really showed much interest in them, until she started working on the Odyssey. It was when Ruffles J1, a fifty-nine-year-old male surfaced within a hundred yards of her on the Odyssey, that her now blazing fire of a passion was sparked. A little stream of water ran down the base of Ruffle’s wavy dorsal fin as he slowly surfaced. His thunderous exhale was the most amazing sound she had ever heard. After this encounter, she began to get to know Ruffles’ family, as well as the other matrilines that make of J, K, and L pod, and it wasn’t long before she could identify all of the Southern Resident orcas by sight.


A replica of Ruffles dorsal fin is located inside the gift shop at Lime Kiln State Park

Ruffles (J1) was the oldest living male, estimated to be between 57 and 60 years old at the time of his death in 2011. He had a distinct 6 foot wavy dorsal fin, making him easily distinguishable.

His presumed mother was Granny (J2), who still graces the waters to this day.

Looking back, Melisa is amazed at how much her life has changed in such a short time. She does not know where she would be now if she had not gotten that job on the Odyssey and if Ruffles had not pulled her into his world. As a naturalist, she continues to teach guests all about the orcas and other wildlife, and how they can help save them.

Melisa’s plan for the future is to help save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction. At just 79 individuals in the entire Southern Resident community, they are ever so close to dying out. she will fight tooth and nail until they either recover, or the last member passes away. How can we help save the Southern Residents you may ask? It’s all about the salmon. These specific orcas only eat salmon (Chinook being their absolute favorite) and are experiencing food shortages. We must take down dams, restore salmon habitat, stop harvesting for a short time to let them recover, and stop supporting farmed salmon.

Melisa attends Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington studying Marine Biology and just finished her freshman year. She will be returning to campus in the fall, but will be back up on San Juan next summer.

You can find her on twitter @MelisaPinnow (SanJuanOrcas)

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