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Is Bellingham on an ocean or a bay? There’s a wave of disagreement

Cirrus and cirrostratus clouds fill the sky over Bellingham Bay.
Cirrus and cirrostratus clouds fill the sky over Bellingham Bay. The Bellingham Herald file

A recent Bellingham Herald story about a TV program showed there’s a tidal wave of discord over the proper term for that place where land meets water in Whatcom County.

A promo for the Nov. 19 episode of HGTV’s “Beach Hunters” was titled “Washington Coast House Hunt” and said the prospective buyer “wants a house with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.”

Some assert the word “coast” means only that part of the Evergreen State’s beachfront that faces the open ocean – not the Strait of Juan de Fuca, not Puget Sound, and certainly not Bellingham Bay.

“Why, oh why, do people in Whatcom County think that Birch Bay or Bellingham Bay is the ocean? They are not,” wrote Heidi Larson of Ocean Park after the story was posted Nov. 12 on The Bellingham Herald’s Facebook page.

Larson’s remarks ignited a minor flame war.

“Every piece of land looking west is an island,” wrote Kyle Pritchard of Bellingham. “So to say it’s not the Pacific because there’s islands out there is kinda weird.”

Added Tony Velasco: “Guess what folks ... wait for it ... both are part of the Pacific Ocean. Fact. Some of you have some learning to do.”

So who’s right?

Maybe the man who coined the term “Salish Sea” can settle things.

The Salish Sea – the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound and all their connecting channels and adjoining waters (including Bellingham Bay) – gained official geographic recognition in 2009.

“We call it the Salish Sea because people can identify with that,” said Bert Webber, a professor emeritus (marine biology) at Western Washington University and a founder of WWU’s noted Huxley College of the Environment.

Webber said technically, Bellingham Bay is an estuary – if not for the bay’s connection to Pacific Ocean currents, it would be a stagnant pool.

Bert Webber
Bert Webber overlooks Bellingham Bay from his backyard Thursday, May 14, 2008. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

“If someone wants to think that Bellingham Bay is the ocean, then why not?” Webber said. “We wouldn’t have the ecology of Bellingham Bay and the Salish Sea if it were not for the connection to the ocean.”

Webber, who lives north of town in a home that overlooks Bellingham Bay, seems a bit amused by the controversy.

“Do we have five oceans or only one? It’s all connected,” he said.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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