While we were happy to see the humpbacks that I covered in this post, we were really hoping to see some orcas. There is a resident group that lives in the area and transients. We didn’t mind which ones we got. We were just hoping to spot some. We were not disappointed. There were quite a few orcas out hunting. They were quite scattered. Our previous orca trip had followed a pod for a long period and they had stayed relatively close together. This time we saw individuals or pairs spread out across the water.
The orcas are such cool looking whales. The black and white coloring is distinctive and the male whales have such a large dorsal fin that they stand out clearly. Getting shots of more than one at once is a touch tricky. Usually they surface individually and one will be diving back under as another breaks surface. I did get the occasional time when they were above the water together, though.
One whale was heading parallel to the shore as we went the other way. Between us was a fishing boat. The guys on the boat must have had a great view as it went by. For us, our pace matched theirs and it appeared that the whale was always just in front of the fishing boat! With the amount of orcas we saw, it was a very successful trip.
We have had some good opportunities recently to see orcas up close. That didn’t stop us looking for them while we were on San Juan Island. The west side of the island has regular whale activity of a few species. When we showed up at the good spots, we met people telling us what had been passing by earlier. We even just missed a humpback (or gray depending on who you talked to) that had come into Friday Harbor. We did get a bit luckier when we got to San Juan State Park.
A bunch of orcas were off the coast a bit north of the area we visited. They seemed to be hanging around in one area so may have been feeding. There are two distinct groups of orcas in the area. The resident group feed on salmon while the transient group like mammals such as seals. This was the resident group apparently. Eventually they headed north away from us but, in the mean time, another part of the group came into view from the south. They transited north although sadly a bit far out for a good view.
While we were following the orcas, we saw a sudden display of power combined with a lack of interest on the part of the whale. We had passed a number of different creatures on the way included a baby fur seal and a sea lion which, while one of them had freaked out and bolted for safety, the whales had shown no interest in. Then, there were some birds sitting on the surface. One of the orcas decided this was a training exercise. It was alongside us and then dropped below the surface. I could see the silhouette under the surface and the acceleration was scary. A couple of pumps of its tail and it shot off towards the bird. It knew something bad was coming and tried to get away. It fluttered violently to try and escape but was overtaken by the whale and then vanished below the surface.
Just as suddenly as it went away, it suddenly popped up again and started fluttering in the onsite direction. I guess the whale had a bit of a play with chasing it and then lost interest. The bird survived to live another day but the whale probably never really cared about it in the first place. I guess if the bird could comprehend how little the attack had meant to the whale, it might be a touch annoyed!
Orcas are cool. No avoiding it, they are a great looking whale. We spent a lot of time with this group on our tour with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Because they kept offering up good opportunities to interact with them, we followed them a long way up the coast. We ended up off Davenport which meant, when we turned back, we had a long way to go to get back to Monterey. However, it was worth it. As we got further away from the normal whale watching boats and the group got more used to us, they got more relaxed.
We occasionally got ahead of them at which point they would swim towards us, sometimes crossing right behind the boat. At times like this, the team on the boat would drop a towed housing off the back with a GoPro mounted in it. They got some cracking footage as the whales got curious about the line and took a look at the camera. Meanwhile, we got to see them at very close quarters. It was so cool.
Getting good shots of the whales was trickier than I expected. They stay down for irregular times and predicting where they will pop up is hard. If you don’t get them coming out of the water, the head quickly dipped back under which makes for a far less impressive shot. You want to see the head and get the black and white patterns on display.
When you have a few hours with the whales, though, sooner or later you will get some good shots. This blog does not need to see the number of shots that are the same and only show the back of a whale as it heads back below the surface. The ones with the head visible and the ones that will be shared. Trust me, though. There are a lot of shots of the backs of whales with no visible head.
The boat team weren’t the only ones that took some video. I also shot a bunch of video as we went. Some of it was unusable as a result of the movement of the boat. Other clips were no use because I was looking in the wrong direction and the whales weren’t doing what I anticipated – don’t they know what I need? However, I still got a few clips that were what I was hoping for.