Experience the Southern Resident Killer Whales Right Here!

Show of hands…who here wants their own Free Willy moment? Okay, that may not be realistic (and, really, we don’t want to see any whales in captivity), but you can experience the majesty and beauty of Orca Whales in your own backyard! Or front yard. Or your boat’s front yard more likely.

Lucky for us, Orcas are prevalent in this area. In fact, The San Juan Islands are the top place to see Orcas in the continental United States, closely followed by Vancouver Island, Canada, which is right there, too. We have the two best places for whale watching in the continental US right at our fingertips. Let’s take advantage of it!

I’m sure, living in the Pacific Northwest, you know what an Orca is. But, just in case, let’s take a look. Orcas, also known as Killer Whales, are the largest member of the dolphin family. They are apex predators, meaning they are at the top of their food chain and have no natural predators. Orcas are fierce hunters that prey on marine mammals (seals, sea lions, and even whales) as well as fish, squid, and seabirds. While they are deadly to marine species, they pose little threat to humans. However, you definitely don’t want to approach one you see in the shallow water or hop in the water and try to play with or ride them. They are still wild animals that have a prey drive. It is encouraged, though, to watch them from afar. The thrill of seeing a pod of these awe-inspiring creatures in their natural habitat is something that can’t be beat.

The Orcas we know and love are known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales, and they inhabit the Salish Sea throughout the year. Unfortunately, they are endangered, but the fact that they were added to the endangered list in 2005 brings hope that people will not break the law by trying to capture or hunt them.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales are a large extended family (a clan) that is comprised of three pods—J, K, and L pods. Not unlike us humans, each pod of whales has its own “family” where an older female (usually grandmother or great-grandmother) is the leader, and the younger males and females stay with their mother their entire lives. Each pod has a unique dialect of sounds they use to communicate. Some of these calls are the same between all three pods, but no calls among the Southern Residents are the same as calls of any other clan of Orcas.

Killer whales have been a symbol of power and courage since as long ago as 100 BC. Unfortunately, people have not always respected these mammals. In Washington, the time from 1965 to 1976 is known as the Captive Era because approximately 45 of the Southern Resident Orcas were captured for marine parks and 13 were killed in attempted capture. Even after being added to the 1973 Endangered Species Act in November 2005, the Southern Residents are still struggling. As of October 24, 2016, there are only 80 Southern Residents—26 in J pod, 19 in K pod, and 35 in L pod. That number has dwindled dramatically since the 98 that were reported in 1995 and the estimated 200 that were alive in the late 1800s.

The fascination with Pacific Orcas really started with Ted Griffin in the early 1960s. Always having been intrigued by the marine life in the Puget Sound, Griffin dreamed of opening his own Marineland in Seattle. In 1962, his dream became a reality, and, in 1965, he bought a Killer Whale as his main attraction from two fishermen who had accidentally captured it with their fishing net near Namu, British Columbia. Unfortunately, the fishermen realized how lucrative of an opportunity they stumbled into, so, instead of cutting the net and setting the whale free, they passed the word around that they would sell the animal to the highest bidder.

After a few low bids, the fishermen—who originally wanted no less than $25,000 for the whale—settled on $8,000 from Griffin. Griffin and the Orca, who he named Namu, arrived in Seattle on July 27, 1965. Namu was only the third Orca ever captured—he was the first one to be displayed in an aquarium to perform with a human. Namu lived just over a year in captivity. Griffin’s acquisition of Namu is what started the Captive Era I spoke of earlier.

The US Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 has stopped the capture of Pacific Orcas, but the rest of the world is a bit behind. Orcas are still captured in Russian and Icelandic waters. Many of the Orcas currently in captivity were born in captivity, which, while not ideal, is proof that the capture of Orcas is declining. Lolita (Tokitae) is the only Southern Resident in captivity (she is in the Miami Seaquarium).

After all of this talk of Orcas and our Southern Residents, I’m sure you want to experience them in all of their glory and to understand why these magnificent creatures should remain in nature and not an aquarium. You can see these whales year round in the waters in and around Seattle and in the north Sound. However, the best time to see Orcas here is between April and September. If you can’t make a trip in those months, there is still a chance to see Orcas in the other months, but the chances aren’t as high. During the off months, though, you will have a high chance of seeing Humpback Whales, Gray Whales, Porpoises, seals, sea lions, and Eagles, so your trip would still be fruitful.

There are many places around the Sound that offer charter boats and sailing trips to go whale watching, but you can also take your own boat out on the water and spend as much time with the whales as you desire.

Before going out on your boat to watch the Orcas in their home, please brush up on the vessel laws that are in place to protect the Southern Residents and their relatives:

1. It is unlawful to get within 200 yards of an Orca.
2. Do not position any vessel in the path of an Orca (within 400 yards)
3. The transmission of all vessels must be disengaged when 200 yards (or fewer) away from an Orca
4. Feeding an Orca is strictly prohibited

Failure to adhere to these rules can result in hefty fines. So just follow the rules and everyone will be safe and happy! If you do take a trip to hang out with the Orcas, send us your photos! We’d love to see them.
Happy Whale Watching!