Seeing Orca Whales in the Wild
The best way to see Orcas for the first time is in the wild
Actually, the only way that we should be able to see these creatures is living free in their natural environment. In recent years more people are becoming aware of the plight of large marine mammals being kept in theme parks. Their size, psychology, social structures, and migration patterns demand that they live in the open sea yet we still keep them on display for the amusement of the public.
For my birthday this year I wanted to do something different, something celebrating nature while having a great time doing it. We booked an afternoon trip to see whales through a tour based in Anacortes, Washington. I will truly remember the experience for the rest of my life.
Three pods of whales hang around the Puget Sound
It was more than an hour into the tour before we spotted the first Orca and along the way we were shown some of the other wildlife living in the San Juan islands – seals, sea lions, birds, and even european deer. The deer were on an island that used to be a game reserve.
We were also taught more about Orca and learned how there are actually two different types. The three pods that hang around the Puget Sound are fish eaters and especially love salmon. “Transient” pods have been more common this year though since salmon numbers are down. These visiting pods eat mainly marine mammals like seals.
How are the whales found every day?
The way that the tour works is that every morning the boat sets out and looks for whales using sight only. Other boats radio to one another if animals are spotted and then they can make their way there. No aerial or sonar methods are used so that the whales are not disturbed.
Once you arrive in a place where whales are swimming the boat must keep at least 1/4 mile from the animals. If a whale swims closer then that’s their prerogative, and happily we did have a close encounter when one chased his salmon close enough for us to see him more clearly. I was literally squealing!
Each orca has its own name
While we were watching the whales we were given running commentary on where to look and what the animals were doing. The boat we were on had three naturalists onboard – Bart, Scott, and Brooke. They used binoculars and long-range lenses to identify individual members of the pod and tell us more about them.
From looking at dorsal fins and the ‘saddle patch’ area on the whales we learned some of the animal’s names. All of the orcas were from the local ‘L Pod’ and we saw Mega, Spirit, Mystery, Solstice, and even baby Windsong who was born last year. This little guy was the most playful, just like a human baby.
Orca are highly intelligent and social creatures
Loosely swimming in a group, the whales were busy catching their lunch while we watched from afar. They’d swim along the surface and then disappear under while they chased fish to the bottom of the sea sometimes.
These local residents don’t eat anything other than fish and also do not interact with the transient meat-eating orca who visit the area seasonally. Scientists are now considering whether the fish eating and meat-eating orca are actually different species.
Within a pod are males, females, and babies and males often stick around their mother for years. Studies have shown that adult male orca who lose their mothers are eight times for likely to die the next year.
Just being on the water was worth the tour
After an hour and a half of watching the whales we set back off to Anacortes happy and excited about our experience. Josh and I mainly sat up top in an open area of the boat and got excited each time something was spotted. I really wish I’d had a zoom lens with me though for closer photos.
Aside from the whales, the biggest reaction that people had were to two bald eagles. One was sitting high on a tree and the other was atop a tiny rocky island that jutted up from the sea.
We also learned a little about the history of exploration, had a few famous people’s homes pointed out to us, and watched as sailboats cruised the beautiful blue of the San Juan islands. It was an unforgettable five hours.
Tips on booking your own experience
We booked our excursion through Island Adventures and highly recommend them. They gave great service, made the entire trip both informative and amusing, and you could tell that all three naturalists were passionate about whales. The tour leaves from a boat close to their main office in Anacortes and brings you back to the same spot later in the day. If you do book, here are some recommendations:
- Wear warm clothing, even in summer. Layers are good and make sure you have a hat to keep your ears warm.
- Bring binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens to see the whales better
- Get to chatting with the naturalists when they have a break. We spoke with Bart and learned more about his background and side business of wildlife photography.
- Check out Island Adventures whale report blog to see whales that were spotted in the days before your tour
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