With cold and gray winter days tempting us to sing the blues, swimming in the marina at the South Whidbey Harbor at Langley is an elixir that powers us mermaids, Sophie, Sharon, Betsy and me.
Feeling the zing of swimming in open water, moving through the rolling waves and sometimes strong currents, we emerge recharged. Though the water temperatures range from 40° to 46°, our wetsuits keep us warm enough to brave a winter swim. It is our camaraderie and the swimming with harbor seals and sea birds which thrill us.
Our morning swims find us chatting with Interim Harbormaster Kathy Myers and Assistant Harbormaster Bryan Smith. Their dedicated work maintaining the marina and boat launch ramp seven days a week gives them a front row seat to observing the birds, seals, otters and whales that frequently visit.
Meeting Kathy and Bryan at the Harbormaster’s office last week, Kathy said I had just missed seeing a couple of gray whales.
Bryan added that he saw a humpback whale last summer.
“It breached—pretty impressive,” Bryan said.
Arriving for work at the marina by 8 AM—and sometimes earlier when there are super high tides—Kathy and Bryan share stories of wildlife they’ve seen.
Bryan mentioned once seeing a young Cooper’s Hawk trying to fly off with a pigeon it had caught.
“It crashed in the water,” Bryan said.” Then it had to dry off on the dock and didn’t move, even when people walked by. He’s gotten better now at hunting.”
“He once caught a pigeon and then the eagle swooped in and stole it,” Kathy added, recalling the hawk’s later hunting escapades.
Pigeons are one of the bird species who make their home among the dock pilings at the marina. We often hear them cooing, their voices echoing through the weathered deck boards. Courting rituals are a frequent sight as males strut among females.
“Look!” Kathy said, pointing to a male pigeon, his iridescent pink, gray and turquoise neck and chest feathers puffed out. The male hoped to attract the attention of a couple of females. While he displayed his finest, they nonchalantly turned their backs on him and walked away. The male boldly followed them, continuing his dance.The females remained indifferent.
While the pigeons, crows, gulls and herons make the marina their home year-round, other sea birds winter over in Langley. Our visiting cormorants migrate. An interesting fact about them is that cormorants are used in the practice of Ukai, Japanese fishing, which use leashes on the diving birds.
Visitors to the marina may notice the dark water birds with long necks posing on dock pilings with their wings outstretched. Their voice sounds a bit like the bark of a seal. The birds lack oil to waterproof their feathers and can be seen with outstretched wings, drying their feathers after diving for fish. They are considered an ecosystem engineering species.
One variety is Brandt’s Cormorant. As mating season approaches males develop a bright blue throat patch.
Another variety is the Double Crested Cormorants. They are iridescent with orange beaks and chins. Both species mingle together with gulls nearby, yet an invisible line divides cormorants from gulls, even as they crowd together on the abandoned pier.
Often seen diving in formation, harvesting mussels from the pilings are Barrow’s Goldeneyes, handsome black and white males and their brown-plumaged mates. The diving ducks gather in flocks and seemingly walk across the water surface as they flap furiously. The ducks spend winters in salt water, lowland lakes and rivers. They breed in high altitudes—6,100 feet and above—among forested high alpine habitat.
Like tiny black and white tugboats, we have seen another diving duck, the Buffleheads. They dive and surface like synchronized swimmers, feeding on crustaceans and plants. Like the Goldeneyes, they fly low to the water, their feet paddling the surface.They winter over much of the United States and Mexico and breed in Canada during spring and summer.
In addition to the birds, Kathy and Bryan talk about the harbor seals they see frolicking along the docks, leaving their poop behind, which requires daily hosiing.
“Seal poop smells the worst!” Kathy said, identifying a patch of light-gray-looking stuff on a floating pier that looks like liquid concrete.
Counting 16 harbor seal residents, Bryan has taken a number of photos of them posing on the deck. Their babies have not yet arrived, and are due in the spring. Boaters are asked to be mindful of the harbor seals and their babies, taking care to avoid hitting them with propellers.
When we swim with harbor seals, it is a thrill to see their dog-shaped head at the water’s edge and their curious eyes studying us. Honestly, it makes our day to look into the eyes of the resident harbor seals. One swam under Betsy Feb. 20, and it popped up within feet of the three of us the same day. To me it felt like a blessing.
“When I go out sailing they follow my boat,” Bryan noted. “They generally like people and like to check us out.”
River otters, which Bryan said resemble cat behavior when they are on land, run along the docks in early morning and evenings. They leave fish heads for him to clean up.
“They make the biggest mess,” Kathy noted, pointing out a patch of otter poop, filled with fish bones and shells. “I will be walking along the dock and see a pair of eyes peering at me from the pilings. It will be the otter. They are shier than the harbor seals. They make a chattering sound.”
While we were chatting, Phil Simon, one of Langley’s classic characters, walked up, saying, “Those bastards messed my boat up again.”
Phil was talking about the river otters, who hauled themselves up on the aft deck of his trawler, a 1978 Marine Trader. They shimmied under a blue tarp covering, and left piles of poop in their wake. They chewed up his sponge.
Bryan took a short video of the otters, who perform a shuffle prior to leaving a dock deposit:
Phil Simon is the son of early Langley entrepreneur—Philip Charles Simon, who was born in the blue house across from the dock in 1883. The family once ran a pub and marine service out of the waterfront. For a good insight into the harbor’s history read about it by clicking this link.
The late Phil Simon donated the waterfront property and boat launch ramp to the City of Langley in 1976. A pocket park bearing a story board with Phil Simon’s history stands adjacent to the boat ramp.
With Bryan working at the harbor just over a year, and Kathy being hired in 2020, the pair work to keep the boat ramp cleared of sand and logs and coordinate moorage along the floating docks. The small harbor contains 41 boat slips, plus accommodates up to 330 linear feet of temporary moorage.
Some of Kathy’s favorite moments are when she is boat wrangling in the summer. She enjoys working with the various boat clubs who travel and dock at the harbor.
“Most people are happy to be here,” Kathy noted. “They’re usually very generous and might give us lunch when we’re working overtime wrangling boats. One of my funniest memories was when I was on the radio. I had five or six boats coming in at the same time. I’d say, ‘You go here. You go there.’ Everyone got their spot. I was like, ‘This was amazing,’—all these things. happening at once.”
Sighting whales is one of the perks Bryan enjoys while working.
“We see them at least weekly,” Bryan said. “Closest I’ve seen one is right in the harbor. I talked with someone who saw them under the wharf. Whales always bring people in. I often see two gray whales at a time. When I’ve seen orcas it’s been four or five swimming together. They’re harder to spot because they don’t come close. I look at the Orca Network’s Facebook page, which updates whale sightings, and it gives me an idea whether the whales are coming our way.”
As he was talking, Bryan pointed out in the water. Circling sea lions could be seen frolicking. While they sometimes swim into the harbor and even sun themselves on the docks, they do not frequent the marina as much as harbor seals do.
A visit to the marina puts us in touch with the natural world and the edge between water, air and land. It is a place to recharge.
Asked what she thinks about her work, Kathy said, “This is the best job I’ve ever had. This is my office! I served in the navy and enjoyed that. Though, it wasn’t something I’d do as a career. This is where I want to be. This job has made me feel a connection to a community for the first time.”
“Here is exactly where I want to be,” he said. “There’s something special with this spot. I came to work here last summer. I’ve lived on and off the island a couple of years. I never been in a place that was quite like home like this place is.”