Puget Sound off the coast of Washington is famous for its Orcas, or Killer Whales, and regular whale-watching daytrips run out of Port Townsend, on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. We signed up for an excursion aboard the Puget Sound Express and set out on a sunny morning, destined for Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and the waters between. Our luck was phenomenal.
A riptide raced between Lopez and San Juan islands, and no fewer than three (!) pods of the highly-social Orcas had gathered there to feed on salmon. Our boat drifted in the sea, as whales foraged, surfaced, and spy-hopped all around us. The boat's underwater microphone picked up the whales' vocalizations, and the captain broadcasted the evocative, eerie whale calls over the PA system.
Milo spots an Orca (Photos by Narca)
Young Milo kept up a litany of "There's one! There's one! There's one! ...! There's a mommie and baby!" He also was first to spot one of the two Minke Whales which graced the morning. Minkes are the smallest of the filter-feeding baleen whales, while Orcas belong to a different lineage entirely: the toothed whales and dolphins.
We were seeing family pods of resident Orcas, those which stay in the coastal waters off the Pacific Northwest and which specialize in eating fish and some squid. Other types of Orcas include transients, which feed mainly on other marine mammals and travel in smaller pods, with weaker family bonds. A third type in the northeast Pacific Ocean is the offshore population, which feeds primarily on schooling fish far offshore. These three populations are genetically distinct and may even be separate species.
Orcas forage and spyhop around the boat.
Three types or populations have also been described for Antarctica, specializing on three foods: Minke Whales; seals; and Antarctic Cod. The genetic relationships between the various Killer Whale populations are still being worked out.
Harbor Seal at Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
In addition to the whales, we enjoyed great encounters with Harbor Seals and Steller's Sea Lions. Seabirds were plentiful, especially cormorants, gulls, Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets, with a few Tufted Puffins and Red-necked Phalaropes added to the mix.
Common Murre in Puget Sound