Orcas in our Midst – Whatever was I Thinkin’?

Orca running off San Juan Island on 3 July 2010

“What was I thinkin?!”  I suddenly thought as I uploaded this photo to the computer.  My son and I had just spent a day kayaking with killer whales – that’s right, wild KILLER whales – each running three to four tons.  One such whale had just killed its trainer at Seaworld and here were my son and I, out in Puget Sound with not just one or two, but more like a two dozen of them.  How did we come to this?

In late June and early July, my wife and I took our holiday vacation in Tacoma, Washington, in the Northwest corner of the USA, not far from Canada.  I badly wanted to do some kayaking there,  so prior to going, I did some research on the internet and found an outfit up there called Outdoor Odysseys (http://www.outdoorodysseys.com/), based out of a place called Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, out in Puget Sound.  My son Dan and I signed up for their “Eagles and Orcas” tour on July 3rd, just before the American Independence Day.

So, on the appointed day, Dan, my wife Myong Hi, and I took the 9:05 am ferry from Anacortes, Washington, out to Friday Harbor.  Myong Hi and I had spent the evening prior in Anacortes, a charming little seaside resort town on Fidalgo Island.  Dan drove up from Tacoma that morning, and gave us quite the thrill as he made the ferry about two minutes prior to departure.  The day was beautiful, with some light clouds, a temperature of about 72F, and a breeze running 10-15 knots.  As it happened, a marine biologist was aboard the ferry and gave a lecture on orca whales on the way over, which proved quite informative and useful.

I learned that there are three groups of orca whales who live in the vicinity of the southern San Juan Islands, that are called the “J”, “K”, and “L” pods.  These are resident orcas, which means they are born, live and die in this general area.  They are distinct from transient orcas and from offshore orcas.  The local of orcas number somewhere about 70 whales.  The oldest is a female, about 99 years old (the scientists have a formula for figuring this out), named “Granny J1” and her son, “Granny J2” is about 60.  On average, male orcas live about 30 years and the females live about 50-60.  The orcas from the local pods do not eat mammals; they eat salmon – Chinook Salmon, to be precise – and they eat about 200 pounds of these salmon a day.  That they did not eat mammals was comforting to me, since I’m a mammal (rumors that I am actually a reptile are patently untrue)  and was planning to go out in a small kayak to view these creatures shortly.

Upon arrival at Friday Harbor, we linked up with the team from Outdoor Odysseys, who were waiting for us with a van just outside the ferry terminal.  Myong Hi hung out in Friday Harbor while Dan and I boarded the van with the guides and nine other intrepid kayakers to make the trip over to the west side of the island.  Our guides, David and West, were consummate professionals who provided excellent basic instruction on sea kayaking to the rookies in the group and regalled us all with lots of nuggets about the history and the geography of San Juan Island.  After about a 20 minute ride, we arrived at Smallpox Bay (a charming name, no?) where Outdoor Odysseys maintains its kayaks.  There we spent about an hour as the guides trained us, briefed us on how to be good neighbors to orcas, and handed out paddles, floatation devices, spray decks, and the like.  The tour group was very friendly and engaging – I was the old guy in the group, with most ranging in age from around their late 20s to mid-30s.  After getting fitted into our kayaks, we put to sea about 11:00, in search of killer whales…

Left to right: unnamed kayaker, Joel, Dan, and West, who was one of our guides

The trip out was excellent, but we saw no whales.  We paddled south along the coast to Lime Kiln Point Park and then to Dead Man Bay (I’m not making this up…).  Just south of Smallpox Bay we spotted a couple of Bald Eagles!  They had a nest high in the trees on the shoreline and were gliding overhead.  They were majestic and graceful.  As we continued on, close to shore, we spotted a lone harbor seal chowing down on some kelp!  I had never seen kelp like this before – it was kelp on steroids!  The stalks were about an inch and a half in diameter, like tree branches.  This seal was like a puppy, in total ecstasy, as he munched away on the kelp.  He did not care that we were five feet from him.

Even though we had seen no whales so far, this was shaping up to be an excellent trip!  We continued on, around the Lime Kiln Point lighthouse, to Dead Man’s Bay, where we would stop for lunch and some fellowship.

It was here in Dead Man Bay that we learned that David and West were not only great guides, but superb chefs as well.   They prepared us a sumptuous vegetarian picnic lunch, with fruit, hummus, pita, bagels, veggies, and mashed avocado.  Lots of tasty, but not heavy, food.  After eating our fill, we packed up the boats and put back out to sea, for the trip back to Smallpox Bay.

At this point, I was becoming somewhat philosophical – though the trip had been fun, we had seen no sign of whales at all.  Unfortunately, there is no way that the tour operators can guarantee you will see whales; either they show up or they don’t.  The whale-watching tour boats (which have sonar and other high-tech gear) normally start to gather when whales are in the area, and there were no such boats in sight as we headed back north out of Dead Man Bay.

It was West who noticed, about 20 minutes into this part of the trip, that a couple of whale-watching boats had gathered about a mile or so in front of us.  That was hopeful!  Then we started to see spouts of water blowing upwards, then dorsal fins.

Off in the distance – there were whales!

The first group of three orcas swam straight at us.  Proper response for a kayak group is to “raft” the boats together into a tight group, as this reduces stress on the whales by creating a single entity on the water, as opposed to six separate entities.  While we were rafting up, an orca started to breach about five feet behind our kayak, but apparently thought the better of it and dove out of the way – his maneuver caused the water to surge and churn between us and one of the other kayaks, as it moved into the raft group.  In the course of the next hour, three more groups of orcas would swarm around us, as they swam south.  They were really hauling, travelling at about 30 or 40 knots.  The last group appeared to be the youngsters.  They were chasing each other around and one of them twice jumped completely out of the water in his (her?) exuberance, as they sped past us.

Unfortunately, these photos do not do justice to the show these whales put on for us.  When they breach, they breach fast and unexpectedly and I couldn’t get the shots off in time.  Perhaps the next trip out I’ll be able to do better.

As the last group of orcas headed on south, we found ourselves right in front of Smallpox Bay and so we headed in and put ashore. What an incredible day!

This may be the coolest thing I’ve ever done.


About joel

I live in Bristow, Virginia now, having lived and travelled all over Europe and Africa for the past 20 years (ending in 2012). I've had a lot of adventures but the two coolest things I've ever done were to trek Silverback Gorillas in Rwanda and to kayak with Orca whales in Puget Sound.

Posted on July 9, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. OK Joel…..this one warrents cool points! Wow

    • Eric: If you all ever get up to that area for a vacation, I totally recommend this. Best money I ever spent ($95 a person for the day). You don’t need to know anything about kayaking and its not even that strenuous.

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