Orca Whale

The Southern Resident Orca Pods
Around the San Juan Islands

Orca whale around the San Juan Islands Washington
Two Orcas on the west side of San Juan Island.
Click for larger view.

The Orca whale, Orcinus orca -- a familiar sight around San Juan Island in the summer months, mostly from May through October. During that time there are many great opportunities to see them in the waters around the Islands. The Southern Residents, known as J-, K-, and L-pods, live in the waters of the northwest, in family groups called pods. The first time I saw them all I could think was how majestic and powerful they were. HUGE bodies of the deepest black and the purest, bright white -- a moving experience that was simply stunning. The awe I felt that day is still with me. I'll never forget it.Orca breath, San Juan Island

Orca in Puget Sound, San Juan Island
Photo courtesy of Dan Aurand,
San Juan Island.
Click for larger view

If your kids (or you) love Orca whales, be sure to check out the whale coloring pages. You can print out the drawings and let your children spend some fun, creative time. Print out some killer whale facts to go along with it!

When you want to see Orca whales, there are a multitude of companies set up for and willing to take you out on the water to view these remarkable animals. Their ads saturate the internet and the printed page with promises of exciting encounters, experienced "naturalists," and on and on. No mention is made of the impact on the whales, potential repercussions caused by increased boat traffic and noise, or any awareness of the "Wildlife Cruise" from the point of view of the wildlife. Countless studies, however, show that these interactions have a detrimental impact far beyond what has yet been acknowledged. But you really want to see whales! Isn't there another option, a better way to see these extraordinary animals without the adverse effects?

Happily, yes, there is a better way, a great way, actually. A wise option, and an increasingly popular means of viewing our local resident pods, is to watch from land rather than from the water. Numerous groups and organizations promote land-based whale watching, seeking to educate the public about non-intrusive interactions.

Seeing Orca whales and other wildlife from a kayak is fantastic! Read about kayak travel in the San Juans and get out on the water.

Land-based whale watching is becoming more popular for many reasons, not the least of which is very basic: it's free. Wildlife Cruises, a multi-million dollar industry, cost a good deal of money, which alone can make the decision for many people. Also, since there is no guarantee what you will see on any particular day, it doesn't make sense to crowd yourself onto a noisy boat hoping for a pleasant experience when the alternative is so much more appealing: for example, a relaxed afternoon at a picnic table, or seated at the water's edge at sunset listening to the water slapping against the rocks.

Another major drawback to the Wildlife Cruises is their use of power boats. Often quite loud, this excessive noise is disturbing to both human listeners and marine life alike. Sure, some people believe they aren't bothered by excess noise, like the low-level drone of traffic or the boom of fireworks, but current research is saying that chronic noise (noise pollution) affects us far more than we realize. You can find out more at Noise Off, a website to educate the public on reducing noise pollution in our homes and communities.

To help you comprehend the incredible noise level created underwater by power boats, visit Lime Kiln Point State Park in the summer when their hydrophones are set up to transmit underwater sounds. Hydrophones in the water along the Park coastline are connected to speakers set up next to the lighthouse, so you can actually hear the orcas as well as see them. It's SO cool!
In quiet waters, the vocalizations can be heard for a very long time before you actually see any animals. It's the best 'heads up' for their approach, and also demonstrates how incredibly far sound travels in water. However, when power boats are ANYWHERE nearby the only sound you hear is engine noise, which comes through surprisingly loud. Everything else is overwhelmed, effectively making the whale sounds inaudible. Kind of makes you wonder how they manage to communicate at all, if they manage to communicate, and how they have endured with the racket that's been going on for the past few decades.

Some researchers are now saying that, in fact, these orca whales are not enduring, that the resident pods are becoming so stressed by a combination of factors, which includes boat noise, that they are slowly dying off.

Orcas spyhopping around the San Juan Islands Washington.
Orcas spyhopping.
Photo courtesy of Dan Aurand,San Juan Island.
Click for larger view

For current theories and advice regarding orca whales both locally and around the world, visit the Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance, an Orca advocacy group. Their website is full of all the valuable information necessary for making informed decisions regarding orca whales and the world we all share.
Want to see whales? Here are the best places for whale watching San Juan Islands. Also, it's useful to take along a few of these orca books.

Orcas are not the only whales around the Islands. Read up on other local whales, like the elusive Minke whale (pronounced mink-ee), and the Gray whale for more whale facts.

Here is an orca research site, with beautiful orca photographs, from the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor.

Try this diversion -- a computer orca, that follows your cursor all over the screen. Oddly entertaining!

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