Sunday, May 22, 2005

Whale Watching

One thing on my Washington State "to do" checklist is whale watching, so earlier in the week I booked a trip with with Island Adventure Cruises in Anacortes. Our boat was the Island Explorer II which held 50 or 60 people.

Anacortes Dock

The general route wound through the San Juan Islands towards Canada. Along the way, the naturalist pointed out various birds (bald eagles and turkey vultures), sea lions, and a few colorful sea stars on the way out. See the orange sea star in the picture below? It is on the rocks near the water line. Ellen (the naturalist) informed us these animals are no longer called "starfish" because they aren't fish - instead, the new preferred name is "seastar".

Sea Star

Eventually spotters radioed that J-pod Orcas were sighted in Canadian waters, so we sped north and eventually spent most of our time offshore of Padden Island. I wondered what the term "J-pod Orcas" meant, and found out that was just for classification - there are three orca pods that live in the area, named J-pod, K-pod, and L-pod. I'm not sure what happened to A through I pod - maybe they live further north, south, or at sea. Anyway, J through L pods make up the "southern resident community" of orcas, and occasionally when all three pods come together, they are referred to as a "superpod".

At one point the captain cut engines and Ellen lowered a hydrophone so we could listen to the orcas. We did hear lots of clicks and hoots, as they called out to each other. But soon it was time to move and the hydrophone had to be reeled in before restarting the ship's engines.

We did see plenty of orcas, but my pictures are all rather disappointing. Our boat was large and not allowed to approach closer than 200 yards (so one thing to do in order to see them closer is book a tour using a smaller boat). That combined with the fact the orcas surface and dive quickly meant most pictures missed the best action. The following photo is about as good and close that I got.


We were out a total of 7 hours, and because we spent extra time off Padden Island, we were able to see groups of 5 to 6 of the J-Pod orca family. I saw a breach (jumping out of the water), lots of spyhops (peeking out of the water with their head), a few tailflops (smack the water with their tail), and even what looked like an orca waving at us, but was probably just him/her rolling around.

Orcas are in the dolphin family, but are also known as "killer whales". To really see one close up, you could just visit Sea World. ;) I think it would be really cool to see a real whale - one of the huge blue whales for example. But, that probably means a deep ocean trip and quite a bit of luck as well.

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