Did you know the San Juan Islands are home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the entire world? It’s true!
Orcas, or killer whales, are one of the stars of the Salish Sea here in the San Juan Islands. People come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of these massive sea mammals gliding effortlessly through the water.
Killer whales (Orcinus orca) live in matriarchal family groups, rarely dispersing away from their mothers. Male killer whales are called bulls, female killer whales are called cows, and baby killer whales are called calves. As a sexually dimorphic species males and females look different. Female orcas are usually around 20 feet in length and weigh 8,000 pounds. Males are much larger bodied than females, reaching lengths of up to 30 feet and weights 12,000-14,000 pounds. Usually the easiest way to tell bull from cow is looking at their dorsal fins. These tall black fins on the whales’ backs are their most recognizable feature. A female killer whale’s dorsal fin will be three feet tall, while a male’s fin can be over six feet tall.
As a cosmopolitan species orcas can be found in all of the world’s oceans.
They are considered to be one of the widest ranging mammalian species. Most people do not realize, however, that there are ten different ecotypes of killer whale recognized today. These ecotypes are genetically and behaviorally distinct populations that do not interbreed, look different from one another, eat different prey, speak different languages, and behave wholly different from one another. Though there are ten of these so-called ecotypes identified today, scientists think there could be as many as thirty distinct populations.
Here in the inland waters around the San Juan Islands we can see two of the recognized ecotypes on a regular basis: Resident killer whales and Bigg’s, or Transient, killer whales.
Resident Killer Whales
Here in the San Juan Islands we are lucky enough to see Southern Resident Killer Whales with some reliability. Southern Resident orcas range from Monterey Bay in California all the way north to Southeast Alaska, and historically have spent a chunk of time in our inland waters. Though their name suggests that they might be found in our waters year-round, here in the Salish Sea Resident orcas are seen less throughout the year than our Bigg’s (Transient) killer whales. This has absolutely everything to do with the abundance and distribution of their food. This medium-sized ecotype of orca eats only salmon, most notably the king, or Chinook salmon, which makes up about 80% of their diet. Whale watchers have the best chance to catch a glimpse of Resident killer whales when the salmon are running through the inland waters, from about May to September.
This small population, separated into three large pods designated by the letters J, K, and L, is considered to be one of the best understood wildlife species in the world, and also one of the most endangered. As of July 2017 this unique population stands at 78 individuals.
Bigg's Killer Whales
Bigg’s, or Transient, Killer Whales are a large-sized ecotype of orca that can be found all year round in the waters around the San Juan Islands. These orcas are marine mammal hunters, focusing most of their attention on the robust harbor seal population in the area, but they have also been known to hunt porpoise, whales, sea lions, and even other species of dolphin. Traveling in small matriarchal groups, these killer whales are characterized by cryptic behavior at the surface and erratic travels. Transient killer whales maintain a low acoustic profile as they travel meaning that they place an emphasis on traveling quietly, with very few vocalizations or surface percussive behaviors (breaches, tail slaps etc.). Sometimes whale watchers are lucky enough to witness one of the most spectacular natural events: a Bigg’s killer whale hunt! These sometimes-gory kills are truly a spectacle of athleticism and predatory power.
With healthy prey populations, the population of Bigg’s killer whales in our area is doing very well, with a population estimated to be over 150 animals.
What our customers are saying:
This was easily the best whale watching experience I could've asked for! Not only did we see porpoises, humpbacks AND orcas, but the whole crew was absolutely amazing.
When is a good time to see orcas in the San Juan Islands?
While orcas can be spotted in our waters year round, whale watchers consider “peak season” to be May through September, with July as the high month. This time period historically corresponds with the greatest prey abundance for both ecotypes in the San Juan Islands.
I want to see Orcas from a Kayak!
Great!! Keep in mind that orcas can, and will, travel over 100 miles a day, and can reach speeds of over 35 miles per hour. Even a professional kayaker cannot keep pace with these mighty whales!
Encountering whales via kayak is an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime experience that does happen with some frequency in our waters, but it should never be the expectation on a paddle excursion. Visiting for a paddle in June, July, or August will set you up with the best chances to view these animals in their natural habitat, but it is never a guarantee. If your dream is to see orcas in the wild, plan on joining a tour by motor vessel.