Even if you’ve booked the most unique vessel for your whale watching trip in the San Juan Islands, you can’t fully appreciate a sighting if you don’t know which whale you’re gazing at. To help you prepare, here’s a rundown of the kinds of whales usually spotted in the Pacific Northwest.
Killer whales, or orcas, are the creatures you’re bound to see while whale watching in the San Juan Islands. These black-and-white, dolphin-like animals are divided into three types:
Residents. The most commonly seen orcas off Washington state and British Columbia, these whales primarily eat salmon and travel in groups of 5 to 30.
- Their fin tips tend to be rounded, with the edges either straight or slightly curved.
- They tend to take 3 to 4 dives of 15 seconds each before going underwater for 3 to 4 minutes.
- You should spot them if you go whale watching from May to October.
- As their name suggests, these orcas travel frequently, covering the distance from Southern California to the Arctic.
- They travel in very small groups of 2 to 6.
- Since they’re always on the move, you could call them an uncommon sight – as well as a bit more vicious. Transients hunt seals, sea lions, dolphins, and even other small whales, instead of fish.
- Their fins are sharply pointed, with the tips positioned right at the center.
- These orcas are the most difficult to spot, since they live so far from land.
- When they are seen, they’re seen in groups of 30 to 80.
- They’re smaller than resident and transient orcas.
- They tend to have scarred and nicked fins, plus worn teeth – suggesting they’re serious hunters.
Like orcas, humpbacks have white on their undersides and dorsal fins. But their bodies are often purely black or gray. Most notably, their fins rest on a hump – so you’ll know what you’re looking at!
Humpbacks can be very acrobatic creatures. If the whale you see has very long fins on their sides and a tapered head, then you definitely have seen a humpback whale.
Gray whales have gray skin, yes – mottled gray skin. That’s because their heads and bodies are often covered with barnacles; you could easily mistake them for rocks!
Unlike orcas and humpbacks, they don’t have dorsal fins. They’re also solitary. Unless a mother and calf happen to be migrating together, it’s unlikely you’ll see more than one of these animals at a time. Still – as with any other whale – the sight of a gray would be well worth your trip.
Meet the Different Types of Orca. Whale and Dolphin Conservation
About the Whales. WhaleWatching.com
Types of Orcas in the Pacific Northwest. Center for Whale Research
Killer whale (Orcinus orca). WildWhales.org