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Jill Hein: artist, advocate

As a self-described “compulsive volunteer,” Jill Hein devotes her time to protecting wildlife and educating people about their plight. - Elisabeth Murray
As a self-described “compulsive volunteer,” Jill Hein devotes her time to protecting wildlife and educating people about their plight.
— image credit: Elisabeth Murray

JillHein collects wildlife.

She does not mount their heads on her walls, or display their stuffed bodies in cases.

Rather, she captures their images in photographs.

Hein has traveled far and wide to pursue her passion, photographing grizzly bears in Alaska, penguins in Antarctica, wolves in Yellowstone and musk oxen in Canada.

These pictures, and those taken by other wildlife photographers, cover the walls of her home that looks out over Saratoga Passage east of Whidbey Island.

Like any true collector, even though she has more encounters than most people will ever have, or even dream of having in a lifetime, she wants more.

Hein couples her photography with a greater purpose: protecting these animals. She snapped the Alaskan grizzly pictures while collecting fur shed by the bears to help with a DNA research project.

And one of her local volunteer commitments gives her the opportunity to view one of her favorite animals, the whale, in its natural habitat. Hein said that while she likes all whales, humpbacks and orcas are her favorites.

Both of these charismatic species jump, exposing more of their bodies above the surface than the minke or gray whales that remain mostly submerged.

Once a week in the summer when endangered southern resident orcas cruise around the San Juan Islands searching for the salmon dinner buffet, Hein climbs aboard the Mystic Sea, an Anacortes-based whale watch charter. She volunteers as one of the boat’s naturalists.

While aboard the vessel, Hein shares her love of these wild animals with a new audience each week, as well as information about the endangered species and how to take better care of the natural environment.

“I love it,” she said. “It is a great opportunity to educate people on the state of the Sound and the problems facing the endangered southern resident orcas.”

She also takes photographs — lots and lots of them.

Flipping through a stack of 8 X 10’s that she has printed out from her home computer, Hein attempts to find her favorite, a difficult task when so many of the images capture the raw power of these huge creatures as they leap or their curiosity as they “spy-hop.”

Hein pauses to look at a picture of a humpback breach, one of the pictures she took recently when the creature leapt almost 20 times. Rivulets of water cascade off its body.

Hein, a Washington State University Beach Watcher, said that she was invited to volunteer aboard the Mystic Sea about five or six years ago, when the boat offered gray-whale cruises out of Coupeville.

Hein was later asked by boat owner Monte Hughes to help out aboard the orca watches.

“I really appreciate the information that the volunteers are able to provide,” Hughes said. “They have a tremendous amount of knowledge.”

According to Hughes, Hein is an “all-around naturalist” and her knowledge includes whales, porpoise, seals, sea lions, birds as well as geology and geography.

Before moving to Whidbey Island eight years ago, this Australian native lived in Sammamish and did administrative work at Microsoft for 27 years.

Now quasi-retired, this self-described “compulsive volunteer” has volunteered almost 6,000 hours with the WSU Beach Watchers and she is a board member of the Orca Network.

And she has no plans to stop volunteering anytime soon. After all, her love for these animals has only deepened as she has gotten to know them.

“The resident orcas are very charismatic — and there are so few of them left,” Hein said. “I am one of the voices speaking on their behalf.”

 

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