See up to 5 Types of Whales from 3 Departure Locations!
Icons of the Pacific Northwest
Killer whales, or orcas, are one of the most recognizable and beloved marine species on the planet. They hold a special cultural significance in the Pacific Northwest and we are fortunate to share our local waters with more than one type of killer whale.
Mammal-eating orcas, also referred to as transient or Bigg's killer whales, are becoming a more common sight in our waters due to an increase in their prey – harbor seals, California and Steller sea lions, and harbor porpoise. These stealthy hunters work cooperatively within their family pod to take down prey. Nothing quite compares to watching transient orcas coordinate their attack. An afternoon watching orcas can become a PG-13 experience with one quick flick of the tail, occasionally sending seals flying 30-40 feet in the air!
While Bigg's killer whales tend to travel with their immediate family groups, they often join together with other groups to feed, play, and mate. Speaking of mating, the mammal-eating orcas have sure been busy lately! Since 2012, nearly 90 new calves have been born leading to a population explosion in the Salish Sea. In recent years, this is the type of whale seen most frequently on our tours.
J, K, and L Pods
J, K, and L pod, also known as Southern Resident killer whales, eat different types of fish depending on the time of year. Their favorite food is Chinook salmon, but their diet has been known to include all five types of salmon, as well as steelhead, halibut and lingcod.
These whales live in very tight-knit family groups which range from the youngest baby to the eldest female. Immediate family groups (a mother and her offspring) are referred to as a matriline. Multiple matrilines make up larger pods (J, K, and L pods). It's like traveling with all your extended family! Sometimes, more than one pod will come together. When this happens, it is called a superpod and may consist of nearly 80 animals. The older whales are the keepers of the knowledge – from hunting techniques to their highly-complex language – that’s been passed down through generations.
Common Killer Whale Behaviors
Every day and experience is completely unique and unpredictable! The beauty of seeing these magnificent orcas in the wild is that they are doing what they want to do when they want to do it. No two encounters are ever the same. Below are just a few of the many behaviors that orcas might exhibit throughout their day.
Breaching is an acrobatic display that seems contagious. In order to propel their bodies (up to 11 tons) out of the water they have to reach speeds up to 23 mph! There are many thoughts to why orcas breach. Along with just being fun, researchers think breaching might help slough dead skin or maybe take care of an itch. Or, maybe the orcas just want to feel the effect of gravity. It may also serve as communication through body language or be an effective way to move prey.
A spy hop is just the orcas’ way of checking out what is going on at the surface! Raising their rostrum up through the water, at times past their pectoral flippers, allows an elevated look at the world above the water. This is one of the rare times that a whale engages in human watching!
Even orcas need sleep! When sleeping, members of the pod rest in one close grouping known as logging. The orcas move as if they are synchronized swimming while taking short, shallow dives. Because they are cognitive breathers, half of their brain remains awake while the other half sleeps. This “sleep swimming” activity typically lasts two to six hours and can take place day or night.
How do killer whales find food?
Orcas (both resident and transient) utilize echolocation, which is similar to sonar used in bat species, for “seeing” under the water. “Sound Pictures” are formed when the nasal passage of the orca produces a high-frequency, extremely fast series of clicks that are projected out from the melon and sent out into their environment. the sound vibrations that bounce back from objects are returned to the lower jaw which is then directed to the inner ear where an acoustical image is created. Orcas are able to perceive distance, speed, shape, texture, and composition from these images which help them navigate and search for prey.
How do we identify whales?
The early 1970's, Dr. Michael Bigg, a scientist with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, began studying the orcas of the region, mainly to determine the population and its dynamics in light of orcas being captured for captivity. He developed a technique using photographs to ID individual whales. Currently, the Center for whale research conducts an annual census of the southern resident orcas. Located just behind the dorsal fin on each side of the whale is a white pigmented area called a saddle patch. The saddle patch is like a fingerprint. Unique encroachments of black and sometime scars within the patch make each one distinctive. Characteristics of the dorsal fin itself – such as scars, nicks and overall shape – are also helpful in identifying individual whales.
Learn more about the area's wildlife and scenery
The waters surrounding our three departure locations offer some of the most diverse whale and wildlife viewing on the west coast. Onboard each of our tours, an experienced naturalist helps identify all of the whales, wildlife, and rich history that this area holds.