Everyone wants to see killer whales, and the San Juan Islands have some of the best locations in the world for doing that. During the summer months, these whales – part of what is called the Southern Resident Community – travel in a very consistent pattern around the San Juan Islands searching for salmon, their primary food. This offers us a great opportunity to come alongside and share with you some exhilarating moments with these magnificent creatures.
Did you know that orca whales have two midwives that come alongside a newborn calf during birth? Did you know that male whales never leave the side of their mother throughout their entire lifetime?
Few people realize that all the orca whales in the southern resident community have been identified and cataloged by distinct markings located behind the dorsal fin. Because of these markings our trained naturalist can quickly identify which killer whale we are looking at and the relevant information pertaining to that whale.
Believe it or not there are many other creatures, big and small, that we encounter along the journey. The first thing we usually see, and one of the most entertaining, is the Dall’s porpoise. Colored just like a killer whale, many people will swear they are viewing a pod of baby orcas, but they are actually viewing a close cousin or we should say the orca whale is actually a orca porpoise, which it is!
Another wonderful mammal that frequents our area is the Stellar sea lion, which is the largest sea lion in the world and almost as big as a female orca whale. A close cousin, the California sea lion, routinely swims up the west coast to Seattle, for tasty salmon, only to be captured and transferred back to California. Other critters that we see almost on a daily basis are harbor seals, elephant seals, river otters and many types of seabirds including the tufted puffin.
Besides orca whales, there are three other species of whales that we see. The gray whale, migrates between Mexico and Alaska, and often several dozen year-old calves will end up spending the summer months with us. Humpback whales, are often spotted between Port Townsend and Victoria, and it is not uncommon to see a mother with her calf during the summer. The solitary minke whale, is seen almost every day on our journey to the islands. These whales often appear near large bait balls of small herring.
Normally, our first wildlife stop of the day is Smith Island, a wildlife sanctuary. At this location, we view bald eagles in all their glory–sometimes as many as twenty five at a time. It is also one of only two locations in the entire Pacific Northwest, where a pair of bald eagles has made their nest on the beach, in the driftwood. This provides us a wonderful opportunity to watch these birds raise their young from infancy during the months of June and July.
One of the most common questions asked is how do we find the whales? The best way is to use local knowledge of what the whales do on a regular basis. Orca whales tend to be like deer or elk in terms of their habits and how they follow well-worn routes around the islands looking for salmon. In addition there is now a large network of other whale watch operators looking for the same objective, so radio communication will often yield valuable information as to their whereabouts.