Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed to be located in what is arguably, the best location in the entire continental United States to see whales. As we begin 2017, we’d like to give you a sense of how our major whale populations are doing and what we are expecting in terms of whale watching in 2017.
Southern Resident Killer Whales
The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), a protected group of orcas, consisting of a large extended family, or clan, comprised of three pods: J, K, and L pods. They predominantly eat salmon, and so stay in our neck of the woods for much of the year. This group of whales is under enormous environmental pressure. Salmon runs are not what they used to be, the whales are susceptible to environmental pollution, and shipping traffic in the Salish Sea is up and projected to grow. Just a few years ago, the SRKW population was nearly 90. In January 2017, we’re down to 78 whales. Sadly, we’ve just learned that J2 “Granny” – the world’s oldest known orca (100+ years!) – is missing and presumed dead. We miss her already. Whale researcher Ken Balcomb has a touching remembrance we encourage you to read. Looking forward, we don’t yet know what the 2017 salmon run is going to be. And the external pressures on this population don’t look to be going away anytime soon. Clearly, this extended family has significant challenges ahead. So we’ll hope for the best, and keep you posted. We do know that we can’t wait to see them again this spring.
Transient Killer Whales
In addition to “resident” orcas, we also see “transient killer whales” – these are hunters who feast on other marine mammals (they really put the “killer” in killer whales!). Transients travel widely, but we have been seeing transients extensively the past few years. Even though the salmon population has been down the past few years, the rest of the marine mammal (seals, sea lions, etc) ecosystem has been robust – so there has been plenty of food for the transients, and it looks like they have gotten the memo on that! We expect 2017 to be another strong year for transient sightings.
Perhaps the most exciting recent whale watching development in our area has been the return of humpback whales. After being almost wiped out by whaling in the 19th and 20th century, these grand creatures have made a comeback and have rediscovered the Salish Sea as a rich feeding ground during their migrations. So much of the spring, summer, and fall, we get to see humpbacks on our whale watching tours. Very exciting.
Each spring, majestic gray whales migrate from the southern waters north to Alaska. In March and April a group we call the “Saratogas” passes through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, providing an excellent opportunity to visit and learn about these whales. Grays love shrimp, and we have plenty of it – so we are excited to welcome them back in the spring.
Minkes & Fins
Two of the more elusive whales to see are the minke whale and the immense fin whale. Minkes are small and quick, so whenever we see one it’s a treat. They are mostly loners who have a varied diet – they eat fish, as well as crustaceans and squid and octopus. There is plenty for them to eat, so we anticipate another good year of minke whale watching. The fin whale, on the other hand, is a rare treat to see. The second largest whale after the blue whale, we’ve seen a fin whale each of the past 2 years. Will we see one in 2017? We’ll just have to wait and see…
So – all of these amazing creatures – right here in our own backyard! We’re excited to get back on the water to take you whale watching.