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Cougar swimming across Lake Whatcom amazes water skiers

Mountain lion kittens born in Santa Monica Mountains play for camera

These two kittens, born to P-19 in November 2015, were found in a well-hidden din in a remote area of the mountains by National Park Service researchers in December. DNA testing is underway to determine the identity of the father. Jeff Sikich, San
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These two kittens, born to P-19 in November 2015, were found in a well-hidden din in a remote area of the mountains by National Park Service researchers in December. DNA testing is underway to determine the identity of the father. Jeff Sikich, San

Jordan Kirbyson and two others had finished their morning water ski run Sunday, June 5, at Lake Whatcom when they thought they saw something in the water about 300 feet from wooded Reveille Island.

Maybe it was an otter. Or a deer. That’s what they speculated, before they got close enough.

“Oh my goodness, it’s a cougar,” recalled Kirbyson, who lives along Lake Whatcom.

It was about 8 a.m. The morning was beautiful. The lake was calm, its surface like glass, except for the ripples created by the cougar.

The men — Kirbyson, his father, and a neighbor — idled the boat until they were about 15 feet from the cougar, which was swimming from the island near Camp Firwood straight across the lake to popular Hertz Trail at North Lake Whatcom Park, a distance of nearly half a mile.

“We just stayed a comfortable distance from the cat,” Kirbyson said.

Awed, he shot photos and video of the cougar.

“It was a beautiful sight, seeing a majestic creature so close,” Kirbyson said.

He said he’d heard there were cougars in nearby hills, but the experience confirmed that for him.

A wildlife officer expressed amazement when he saw the pictures.

I’ve never heard or seen anything like this in Whatcom County. That’s an amazing thing, amazing.

Dave Jones, state Fish & Wildlife game warden

It’s not surprising for a cougar to be in and around water. They’re not afraid of it, said Dave Jones, a state Fish & Wildlife game warden in Whatcom County.

But immersing its body in water and swimming, that was unusual.

“I’ve never heard or seen anything like this in Whatcom County. That’s an amazing thing, amazing,” said Jones, who has been in Whatcom County for 10 years.

Also known as mountain lions or pumas, cougars are most active at dusk and dawn, or during what Jones called low light.

They are solitary and rarely seen in the wild, according to Fish & Wildlife.

Still, in forested Whatcom County, people should assume they’re around.

“Everywhere there is deer, there is going to be cats. Always have been cats, always will be cats,” Jones said.

There are steps people can take if they’re worried about their safety, though cougar attacks on humans are extremely rare.

And Jones said there were no documented reports of cougars attacking humans in Whatcom County.

“Worry more about the two-legged predator than the four-legged predator,” Jones said.

As for the men in the boat, they watched the cougar swim for roughly 15 minutes, losing sight of it once it reached Hertz Trail, which is snuggled between Lake Whatcom and Stewart Mountain, and bolted into the trees.

“We were just in awe of the majesty of this thing that was going on in front of us,” Kirbyson said. “It was truly a unique and special experience. It was amazing.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Cougar encounter

The state Department of Fish &Wildlife says few people will ever see a cougar, also known as a mountain lion, much less come face to face with one.

Here’s what you can do to protect yourself if you do:

▪ Hike in small groups and make noise to avoid surprising a cougar. Avoid hiking after dark.

▪ Keep small children in sight.

▪ Don’t approach dead animals, especially deer or elk, since they could be prey a cougar left for a later meal.

▪ If you encounter a cougar, stop and stand tall. Stand on a stump. Don’t run. Pick up small children. Try to appear larger than the cougar. Do not crouch or try to hide.

▪ If the cougar is aggressive, wave your arms or throw rocks. Try to convince the cougar you are not prey. Fight back aggressively. You can spray pepper spray in its face.

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