2015 Gray Whale Tours Now Underway

Gray Whale

Each spring, majestic gray whales migrate from the southern waters north to Alaska. In March and April they pass through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, providing an excellent opportunity to visit and learn about these whales.

March 13 – April 25, leave Port Townsend, Washington at 10am.

Port Townsend tours feature the 40-seat MV Red Head, and run approximately 3-4 hours. The waters that we travel in are protected and usually calm. The tour must have a minimum of 15 passengers for a departure.

March 21 – April 25, leave Edmonds, Washington at 10am and 1pm

Our NEW Edmonds tour features the 60-seat, high speed foilcat MV Chilkat. These tours run approximately 3 hours and the waters that we travel in are protected and usually calm. The tour must have a minimum of 15 passengers for a departure.

Gray Whales

Gray Whale photo by Merrill Gosho

Gray whales are baleen whales that migrate between feeding and breeding grounds each year. They reach nearly 50 feet in length and live between 55 and 70 years! The gray whale has a dark slate-gray color and is covered by characteristic gray-white patterns, scars left by parasites which drop off in its cold feeding grounds. They have two blowholes on top of their head, which can create a distinctive V-shaped blow.

The annual gray whale migration from the Baja Peninsula to the Bering Sea is a challenging, 10,000 mile journey for these great creatures. The area around Everett, Camano Island, and Whidbey Island is popular with the grays due to the robust shrimp population. We’re fortunate that the whales make a detour from their off-shore journey to join us in March and April to feed and build up their fat stores for the remainder of their journey to Alaska.

Two of the most recognizable gray whales are named “Patches” and “Dubknuck”. Along with other whales, we look forward to seeing them return to the waters off of Whidbey Island each year. Patches had a run-in last year with some transient orcas, which he was lucky to escape from. Transient orcas – as opposed to our Southern Resident orcas (which feed mostly on salmon) – eat pretty much anything. So it was a tense few hours out on the water while we watched the chase. Ultimately, Patches escaped – but that is life among whales in the wild!

What Happens When Orcas Reach Menopause


Our friends at the Center for Whale Research, and the University of Exeter, the University of York have just published results after examining 35 years’ worth of observational data from our Southern Resident Pod of orcas. After looking at more than 3 decades’ worth of photographs capturing whales on the move, they noticed an interesting pattern: post-menopausal orca females, the oldest in the group, typically swam at the front and directed the pod’s movements.

Why is that the case? Smithsonian Magazine has the whole story and we strongly encourage you to read the entire article (the study results were published in the journal Current Biology).

However, the upshot is that “with age, comes wisdom!”

Orca females stop reproducing at around 50 years old, which is also the age when most male orcas are nearing the ends of their lives. Many post-menopausal females still have another 40 years to go, however.

“One way post-reproductive females may boost the survival of their kin is through the transfer of ecological knowledge,” says Lauren Brent of the University of Exeter. “The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.”

So far from retiring, orca females that are past their child-bearing years go on to become group leaders with valuable survival skills!

Another Baby Orca in J-Pod!

Newborn J51 with her mother J19 off San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, The Center for Whale Research.

Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) crews are reporting the sighting of another new calf among the endangered Southern Resident Community of orcas – confirmed tonight by Ken Balcomb and The Center for Whale Research. With the recent inclusion by NOAA Fisheries of the captive orca Lolita, in Miami Seaquarium, the population now stands at 80 individuals.

“This is about the best Valentine’s Day present you can imagine,” explains Michael Harris, Executive Director of the PWWA, which represents 32 operators in Washington and BC. “We always try to be cautiously optimistic when he hear about babies, as wild orcas have a high rate of infant mortality. About half don’t make it through their first year. But still, this is wonderful news. J-Pod continues to do all it can to help bring this population back.”

The Center reports that after spending the past two weeks near the west entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, J-Pod finally returned to the interior Salish Sea waters, a brand new calf in tow. Center researcher Dave Ellifrit and naturalist Jeanne Hyde first heard the whales on the Lime Kiln hydrophone this morning, and then embarked on the Center‘s research vessel Chimo while Balcomb watched from shore and managed communications.

Tonight they confirmed a calf that they estimate to be about one week old. The presumed mother is 36-year-old J19. Her 10-year-old daughter, J41, was also in attendance. Both were reported “swimming protectively” on either side of the baby, which The Center says appears healthy. It will be designated J51.

This brings the number of J-Pod whales to 26, making it the most viable pod in the population. K-Pod has 19 individuals, and L-Pod has 34.