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The Animal Science Blog is the place for conversation and discussion about scientific and technological topics related to pets, livestock, and other animals. See how cutting-edge advances help - or hinder - species around the world.

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Washington Whale Watch – Orcas & Other Sea Life

Posted July 07, 2010 12:01 AM by SavvyExacta

Orcas, also known as killer whales, can be found around the islands off the coast of Washington state during the late spring and summer months. There are a number of whale watching boats that take groups out to find the whales in the wild – and seeing them in the ocean is much different than watching them at Sea World.

This blog entry will discuss how whale watching groups find whales and the types of animals they typically pursue. The pictures are from my recent whale watching trip through the San Juan Islands from Anacortes, Washington.

A Six Hour Tour

The trip lasted nearly six hours, with about 20 minutes of actual whale watching. Much of the time was spent sailing past islands off the coast of Washington as well as Vancouver Island, Canada. Along the way we saw harbor seals and porpoises, bald eagles and loons, and a few other species of marine life like starfish.

The orcas we eventually found in Canadian waters (no passport needed!) were resident orcas, part of the L pod. Our naturalist was able to identify several of them from notches in their dorsal fins and the patterns of their white saddle patches. One of the whales we saw was Mega (L-41) – one of the largest males in the pod.

We followed about 10 orcas in all. They were heading south from Canada and we discovered them just north of Stuart Island. They were mostly swimming quickly, but some were porpoising (swimming as porpoises do by hopping out just a little), breaching (jumping out of the water), and one did a spy hop (poking just the head out of the water to look around).


How do whale watch groups find whales? Our naturalist and ship captain used data from researchers and other groups. They also track whale pod locations. Some orcas had been spotted much farther north in Canadian waters the previous day. It was hoped that they would head south on the day of our trip, which they did -- allowing us to see them off the coast of Vancouver Island!

At first, the whales appeared to be playing in the water a little bit before continuing their journey south. We followed alongside to monitor their progress. It was fun to travel with a pod of orcas!

Interestingly, the entire L pod does not live together as a cohesive unit at all times. They often split-off into smaller subgroups. Offspring typically stay near the mother for a lifetime.

The Ship

Our ship, the Island Explorer 3, had some pretty cool technology on board. There was a GPS navigation system that displayed our location relative to surrounding islands and tracked our progress on a flat screen TV inside the nice warm cabin. (Despite it being early May with temperatures reaching the 70s, it was quite chilly out on the water!) The ship is also eco-friendly – green materials were used when it was built, gray water is held onboard, and there is an oil catchment system in the engine room.

For more information check out Island Adventures whale watching. The organization blogs about every day at sea.



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Re: Washington Whale Watch – Orcas & Other Sea Life

07/10/2010 4:31 AM

You're lucky to have seen this. As a crab fisherman and ship's engineer, I have traversed these waters (between Seattle and various Alaska points) a number of times. Orcas are often seen, and are beautiful when several of them arc out of the water in a synchronized ballet.

However, if you are a longliner fisherman who has pulled up a string of nibbled-off fish carcasses, your view might be different. Those guys know a bonanza when they've hit it!

Lotsa guillemots, bald eagles, murres, puffins, and sea otters up here, too; and gray foxes in the inner Aleutians (a group of which is known as the "fox islands"). At Excursion Inlet (between Juneau and Glacier Bay) bears and moose occasionally swim from one side to the other. When I worked at a seafood plant there, bears would sometimes wander into the warehouse, or camp out in our dumpsters, and even once got onto a boat tied up at our dock.

In some portions of the "inside passage," the tidal currents produce eddies in which the water level depresses noticeably toward the center of a vortex that entrains air. This can throw your boat steering off if you get caught in one of them.

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Re: Washington Whale Watch – Orcas & Other Sea Life

07/10/2010 10:28 AM

I was amazed by the number of bald eagles we saw! I believe I photographed at least four nesting pairs pointed out by the captain.

It must be amazing to see these animals every day. That part of the country is absolutely beautiful. I've been out there before, but we were mostly in the Mt. Rainier area, and before that, eastern Washington/western Idaho.

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