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Orca whale watching in the San Juan Islands

Deanna Keahey  ·  Jun 3, 2010  ·  8 Comments

San Juan Islands

Satellite view of the islands

One of the highlights of our trips to the San Juan Islands each year is an orca whale-watching trip.

The San Juan Islands are a group of hundreds of islands, islets, and rocks located near Seattle, WA.  Most of these are very small - in fact, so small that many disappear at high tide!  The majority of islands are uninhabited by people, and many have been set aside for wildlife.  It's a very beautiful area, and a great haven for birds and marine life.

The archipelago is west of the US mainland, and east of Vancouver Island, so they're right along the boundary between the US and Canada.  This border location caused some interesting problems in the past, but that's a story for another day!  Right now, we're talking whales.

The water in this area is home to 3 pods of orca whales (known as the "residents"), and other orcas occasionally pass through too (known as the "transients").  Despite the name, the residents aren't in this area all the time.  Orcas (also called killer whales) travel great distances, and sometimes they head north to Canada, or take off into the wild blue Pacific.

Experts can identify specific whales by their markings and the shape of their fins.  Every whale is given a designation like L-87.  This means it's a member of the L-pod (the resident pods are J, K and L), that was given the sequential number 87.  Once a whale survives a certain amount of time, it's also given a nickname.  L-87 is also known as Onyx.

See whale list and photos...

On a whale-watching day, it's never sure what you'll see.  If there are whales in the vicinity, though, the boat captains will find them!  The captains stay in touch with each other, sharing information about where they've spotted whales, which direction they're heading, and how fast.

Orca whale watching

Orca whales seen on one of our trips

Responsible whale-watching boats follow strict guidelines designed to avoid interfering with the whales, and that's something people take seriously here.  The resident orcas are listed as endangered, and irresponsible boating behavior is one of the many problems they face.  You'll hear a lot more about the whales, their habits, and their threats, from the on-board experts.

I just ran across a post by whale-watching expert and local San Juan Islands naturalist Monika Wieland, that gives a great account of an orca-watching outing.  She also includes some of the other wildlife that you're likely to see on the way, and has some good pictures, too.

Orca Watcher: Whales on the westside - but who are they?

We take a whale-watching expedition every year on our San Juan Islands trips.  Every trip is different -- whales and other wildlife have minds of their own, and you never know for sure what you'll see!  We've been lucky enough to see orcas every time we've been out, and they're magnificent creatures!

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Categories: Destination tidbits · San Juan Islands
Posted from:   Tucson, AZ      Photo credit:   NASA (satellite view), Deanna Keahey (whale view)

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 CNA Training // Jun 3, 2010 at 7:15 pm

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  • 2 Around the island…. | San Juan Update // Jun 9, 2010 at 12:51 am

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  • 3 fairfieldhotelohio // Jun 15, 2010 at 12:29 am

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  • 4 Trish Pierce // Nov 19, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Each post here makes me envy Deanna more...

  • 5 Elloise // Jan 8, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    So killer whales have a nicer name..

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