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Nature on Trail: Whales

Catching a glimpse of wildlife while out on the trail is a treat, but, in my experience, little can top a trail that leads to orca whales and Washington is one of the very few states that offers that chance.

By Erika Klimecky

A golden butterfly flitting past your nose, or the swish of a deer through the brush.

Catching a glimpse of wildlife while out on the trail is a treat, but, in my experience, little can top a trail that leads to orca whales and Washington is one of the very few states that offers that chance. Sure, you won’t find them on just any forested mountain hike and you almost never just “run across” them along the trail. These animals are part of the pursuit on a carefully-selected hike. 

This past summer, I was lucky enough to enjoy such an adventure. On a camping trip to San Juan Island, my group hiked the shoreline trail in San Juan Island Historic Park. It offered madrona trees edging quiet, wild grassy fields and basalt outcrops when the trail ran close enough to the shore. As the daylight faded, we ended the walk and stopped to rest on a large rock outcrop overlooking the water. In the distance I saw a strange grouping of boats courting an unmistakable set of shiny black backs, issuing misty breaths into the air.

Orca by Michele Hoffman Trotter.jpg

When orcas are near, you know it. If not by the occasional sprays and the water activity, then by the bizarre antics of the excursion boats that accompany them. As I watched the herd of boats approach, I looked through binoculars until I was sure the misty sprays were from whales and not the boats. Then, a large dorsal fin broke the water. The J pod and K pod were in our midst.

Orcas, Orcinus orca, are the largest members of the dolphin family, Delphinindae. They travel in matriarchal family pods and can move over 100 miles in a single day when hunting for food. Adult males can grow to be nearly 35 feet long and weigh up to 12,000 pounds. Their dorsal fin alone can be over six feet high. Awe-inspiring! Females are smaller but have longer life expectancies. As a species, life expectancy is about 30 to 50 years, but our local orcas have been classified as their own sub-species, and life expectancy is one reason why. “Granny” the oldest whale of the three “resident orca” pods is nearly one-hundred-years old. Orcas use sonar to echo-locate food, like dolphins and bats do. Each whale has a unique “saddle patch” or gray pattern behind its dorsal fin, like a fingerprint. Each of the three pods has a unique dialect of calls with a set of calls common to all three. Their calls can travel up to 10 miles under water.

Besides all that, they dance! Okay, they don’t exactly dance. But their amazing behaviors do endear us to them. They “spyhop,” poking their heads up out of the water for a few seconds for a look around. They breach and wave their fins. They court and communicate, splash and play. Some of the excursion-boat captains swear the whales recognize the individual boats and captains. They captivate us with their size and grace and intelligence.

The Center for Whale Research, in Friday Harbor, Washington, has identified and tracked Puget Sound’s resident pods since the 1970s and has named each of the more than 80 whales in the three resident pods (designated as J pod, K pod and L pod). Diet, range, social behavior and kinship are all unique to our local resident orcas. They are fish-only hunters, eating fish such as salmon and herring. In contrast, transient orcas also hunt seals, sea lions and other ocean mammals. Worldwide, orca whales are not considered endangered and are even taken for food in some countries, but, in 2005, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conferred endangered status on the  estimated 88 whales which make up Washington’s three resident pods (also known as the Southern Resident Pods). 

Though there is a bit of preparation and planning required, if a hike offers you even the chance of seeing these amazing creatures, the hoops you jump through to get there will be well worth it.