Hazel Dell photographer spots whale, gets to name it for herself

·2 min read

Jun. 10—Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean swims a humpback whale named for a Hazel Dell woman.

Jenna Van Valen was on vacation with her husband in January when she snapped photos of the whale off the coast near Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

She's a photographer by profession. She works for a Portland company taking photos of specialized products, and also shoots destination weddings. She decided to tote her Nikon with her on a whale-watching excursion.

Humpback whales travel up to 3,000 miles from where they feed in the cold waters off Alaska to breed in the warmer waters around Hawaii and Mexico.

"I'm not a wildlife photographer. Whales, it turns out, are terrible subjects," Van Valen said with a laugh. "We saw this one whale for quite a while. I got one or two shots of its fluke. It had a unique mark on the underside."

She uploaded the photo to the citizen-science database happywhale.com, which seeks to identify individual marine mammals.

She didn't hear anything back until a few weeks ago, when she learned that she had photographed a whale that hadn't been documented yet.

Happywhale let her know that for a $1,000 donation, she could name the whale she spotted.

"We thought it would be hilarious to name it Van Whalen," she said.

Every July for her birthday, she asks her friends through Facebook to donate to the Humane Society of Cowlitz County. She decided to use her upcoming 42nd birthday to solicit donations through GoFundMe so she could name the whale.

"I threw $200 of my own," she said.

Van Valen reached her $1,000 fundraising goal by the end of May and sent the money to the Whales of Guerrero. The nonprofit serves as Happywhale's fiscal sponsor and works toward long-term marine restoration and conservation in southwest Mexico.

"I love knowing there's a whale out there with my last name," she said.

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