Local musician launches festival to celebrate Orca whales

By Steve Guntli

Birch Bay resident and musician Nolan Murray has been a champion for local orca whales for a while now. Now, he’s sharing his passion by hosting a daylong festival celebrating the local killer whale population.

Birch Bay Orca Fest will take place in Birch Bay State Park on Saturday, May 28 from noon to 8 p.m. The event will feature several keynote speakers and musical acts, with the goal of promoting education and stewardship amongst the local population.

Murray was inspired to take up the orca’s cause after watching the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.” The film, which depicts the conditions at Sea World in San Diego, which contributed to decreased ticket sales for the park, and inspired the release of captive whales from parks around the country. Murray, moved by the film, sought to get involved.

“One of the best things about that movie is that it isn’t just a bunch of activists,” he said. “They interview some of the best scientists in the world who presented objective research. That’s what I wanted to do, learn as much as I could from neutral sources.”

Murray got involved in a big way. He is now music director for three different organizations, Orca Network, Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network and Center for Whale Research.

“I knew I wanted to help get the message out, and I thought, what better way to communicate than music?” Murray said.

Alongside BP Heron Center environmental director Jana Turner, Murray is working to foster stewardship at the local level.

Murray has set up an impressive slate of guests to attend the event, including several renowned experts who appeared in the “Blackfish” film.  Howard Garrett, president of the Orca Network, and Ken Balcomb, president of the Center for Whale Research, each provided commentary for the film.

“We are so lucky to have some of these people coming to speak here,” Murray said. “They are some of the most renowned experts in the world, and have been working with these whales for decades.”

Local experts will also be speaking at the event. Victoria Souze, director of the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network, will give advice on dealing with stranded or abandoned marine mammals. Rick Wood, a local filmmaker who documented the plight of the southern resident killer whales in his film “Fragile Waters,” will talk about his experience and preview his upcoming film, “Deconstructing Eden.”

Murray plays for several bands, including Whisky Minstrels and Tiller’s Folly. With the latter, he recorded a song called “Bring Lolita Home,” which details the plight of Lolita, the last surviving orca whale taken into captivity  from Penn Cove in the early 1970s. Lolita has now been in captivity for 46 years; every other whale captured there died within 17 years. The song is available on iTunes, and all proceeds go to the Orca Network.

The Whisky Minstrels are set to perform, as well as other local groups, including Lord Knapp, Testify, The Replayzmentz, Peter Ali, Patsy Thompson and the Greg Pitsch Band.

Kids won’t be left out of the fun, either. Author Barbara Jean Hicks, who adapted Disney’s hit film “Frozen” into a series of children’s books, will be on hand, along with an impersonator Murray claims is a “dead ringer” for “Frozen” heroine Elsa. There will also be a scavenger hunt and some junior ranger activities available.

The event is free to attend, but Discover Passes are required  to park in Birch Bay State Park. Murray recommends bringing chairs, blankets and picnic lunches.

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