Orcas are highly intelligent and social animals, traveling in groups called pods. Their fierce predatory style won them the nickname of “killer whale” in spite of the fact that Orcas, both in the wild and in captivity, show incredible curiosity, awareness and gentleness toward people. Orcas have no natural predators except for humans. Whaling, aquarium capture, pollution and the reduction of food supply have taken a toll on these majestic animals. Although orcas are found in all oceans and most seas they prefer colder waters and are more predominant in the Pacific Basin. Orcas are black in color with white undersides as well as white markings located behind the eyes and dorsal fin. The largest of the dolphin family, male Orcas average 27 feet in length and weigh eight tons with dorsal fins growing as high as 6 feet. Females are smaller, growing to an average 23 feet and weighing six tons. Their dorsal fins only grow to two feet and are more curved, making it possible to tell the genders apart while viewing them from the boat. To spot Orcas, look for their black dorsal fins rising through the water. It is easier to spot adult males as their dorsal fins are so tall and distinct. Also, scan the horizon for rising puffs of steam known as a blow. This is a sign that a whale is coming to the surface to breathe. An Orca may jump clear of the water and crash back down on its back or side. This is known as breach. It is also common to see an Orca slap its tail on the water’s surface, a behavior called tail lobbing. Another way to get a great view is to watch for spy hopping. This is when an Orca hangs vertically in the water and sticks its head above the surface to get a look at what is going on out of the water.
In the waters of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands there are two different types of killer whales known as transient and resident Orcas. Transient Orcas travel a much broader range than residents. The transient Orcas we see here travel between Alaska and the mid-Californian coast and travel in small pods, usually between one and seven whales. They feed primarily on marine mammals such as seals and sea lions but will also form large temporary pods in order to attack other species of whales like the Gray or Minke. There is no socializing, interaction or breeding between transient and resident Orcas. In fact, resident Orcas will chase transients out of the area, making transient Orca sightings somewhat rare in these waters. Resident Orcas have a smaller and more defined traveling range, spending months at a time in a specific area. They travel in family oriented pods of 20- 40 whales. When a baby is born into a pod it is a group effort to raise it. Residents spend their entire life with the pod into which they were born. They will interact, socialize and breed with other resident pods but they will not change from one pod to another. Their diet is made up of fish and squid with the primary food source being salmon. The resident Orcas that reside in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands are known as the Southern Resident Community and are one of the best-studied Orca populations in the world. Their growing community is made up of three distinct pods known as J, K and L pods. From spring throughout the summer and sometimes into the fall, these resident whales can be seen regularly in the San Juan Islands as they seek out the salmon returning to spawn. In the fall and winter months, they will leave protected waters, sometimes for months, and swim out to sea to follow the salmon. An adult Orca must consume about 40 salmon a day, so they spend considerable time hunting.
Minke whales fall into two different species, the Northern and Southern or Antarctic variety. They are relatively abundant and can be found in all oceans and seas across the world. Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales. To feed, the Minke takes in huge mouthfuls of water then, using its tongue, pushes the water back out of its mouth catching small fish and plankton in its bristly baleen. Minke whales are dark grey to black with a white underside and a white patch on both front flippers. They often have a pale chevron behind their heads. Adults grow to an average size of 30 feet and weigh between five and ten tons and females tend to be larger than males. The Minke are usually solitary but may be seen in groups of up to three whales. They are normally difficult to approach but some are curious and will come close to boats for a better look. They are not as acrobatic as Orcas but they will breach, usually three times in a row. These whales have also been observed making dolphin-like dives in the water. To spot a Minke whale look for a low, bushy blow at the water line as well as watching for the broad black back and small dorsal fin. When the animal dives, the dorsal fin is visible well above the water but the tail rarely breaks the surface.
Gray whales are the most coastal of the baleen whales (whales lacking teeth) and are often found within a few miles of shore as they migrate from Alaska to Baja. Gray whales have baleen (a hairy substance) instead of teeth. To feed, they fill their vast mouths with mud from the sea bottom and filter it through their baleen to capture amphipods and other small animals. This is the only type of whale to feed in this manner. The average adult Gray whale reaches 50 feet and weighs up to 35 tons. They have robust bodies that are mottled gray, marked with orange patches that are caused by parasitic whale lice. Their heads often have areas encrusted by barnacles. To spot this animal, look for a tall and bushy blow near shore as they feed in shallow water. These whales lack a dorsal fin and show their tails when diving. Gray whales will quite often swim alongside boats to “people watch,” and are also known to breach. Gray whales are found in two areas: off the coast of Korea and off of the west coast of the North America.
The Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is a marine mammal belonging to the suborder of baleen whale. Blue Whales are long and slender and are a blue-grey color with a tapered body, small dorsal fin and flat head. Three distinct species of Blue Whale can be found in the North Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Blue Whales primarily feed on crusteceans , krill and occasionally small squid. They feed at a depth of about 330 feet and usually only surface-feed at night. An adult Blue Whale can reach a length of 88 feet and weigh nearly 190 tons and is believed to be the largest animal that has ever lived. Female Blue Whales typically give birth every 2-3 years. Calves are weaned at about six months and reach maturity at about 8 years of age. Most Whales live their lives as individuals or they may travel with one other partner. They typically live to 34 years of age and their only natural predator is the orca.
The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a Baleen whale ranging in size from about 40–50 ft and weighing approximately 79,000 lbs and is greyish in color. The Humpback is characterized by it’s tapered head and unusually long pectoral fins. The Humpback Whale is found in oceans around the world but tends to stay in polar waters in the summer where they feed, and then migrate to more tropical waters in the winter. In winter months, the whales survive off of their fat supplies. A Humpback migrates about 14,000 nautical miles a year. The Whales mate during the summer and then give birth during the winter. Adult whales feed off of krill and small fish and produce a distinct whale song that can last 10-20 minutes. Calves are weaned at six months and are thought to live 50-60 years although there is evidence that some may live even longer.
With adults reaching near 67 feet in length, the Sperm Whale is the largest toothed whale, the largest living toothed animal, and has the largest brain of any animal. Sperm Whales are characterized by their light grey color, white waxy film that covers their heads, a thick body that tapers at the tail and their lack of a dorsal fin. They can be found in all oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. Sperm Whales have 20-26 teeth and feed primarily on squid but also octopus, a diverse range of fish and the mega-mouth shark. They can dive for up to 90 minutes and are known to have epic battles with giant squid, often carrying battle-scars from squid suckers. Little is known about how the animals mate, but a female Sperm Whale’s gestation period is about 12-14 months and they give birth about every 6 years. Calves can nurse for up to 13 years although a female Sperm Whale is considered mature between 7-13 years old and a male is mature at 18. Female Sperm Whale travel with their young in groups of up to a dozen whales. Males tend to live in small groups or live as individuals. Young sperm whales can face attacks by orca and pilot whales. Adult males make a clicking sound that is the loudest sound made by any animal.
The Pacific White-sided Dolphin can be found in the North Pacific Ocean between North American and Asia. The Dolphin is characterized for it’s white underside, dark grey back and light grey stripe running along its sides from its eye to its tail. The Pacific White-sided Dolphin feeds on hake, anchovies, squid, herring, salmon and cod. It’s also known for it’s curious and active personality and often approaches boats. The Dolphin usually travel in large groups of 90 individuals or more and occasionally in super groups of over 1000. They have a complex social structure and will often stay beside an injured individual. Females are mature at 5-6 years and males at 8-10 years. The gestation period is around one year and the dolphin gives birth to a single calf.