Spotting an orca swimming alongside your water craft is an unforgettable experience for visitors to the San Juan Islands.

Rebecca Smith

orca family

Killer Whale (Orca)

As you walk the bluffs of American Camp between April and September, listen for the soft spouting of an Orca. You can’t miss them: at six feet, a male’s dorsal fin is the tallest in the sea.

They are easily identifiable with their jet-black bodies, oval white patches behind the eyes, white throat, chest and sides, and gray saddle patch behind the dorsal fin. And they are a joy to watch. Normally they travel at leisurely speeds of 3 to 4 miles per hour, and have been observed breathing in unison. But they can propel themselves through the water at speeds up to 35 mph with large, paddle-like flippers and muscular tails. And true to their acrobatic dolphin status (they belong to a group of cetaceans known as ‘blackfish,’ which are actually dolphins), they breach, lobtail, flipper-slap, and spy-hop.

Residents of the San Juan Islands form three large family groups, or pods. The J pod, which currently has about 25 individuals, is frequently seen along the western shore of the island and is the only pod that makes occasional appearances throughout the winter. K pod has 19 individuals, and L pod, the largest of the Southern Resident pods, has 43.

They are very social: Pods have been seen greeting one another by facing off in two tight lines, then mingling as though at a social gathering. Each pod has its own dialect that has been passed down from generation to generation, and they communicate through clicks, whistles, squeaks and pulsed calls. Their voices carry many miles in the sea.

Because calving occurs year-around, peaking between autumn and spring, you’re likely to see a young calf traveling in its mother’s slipstream.

Orcas are on the top of the food chain, and feed on fish, squid, seabirds, sea lions, seals and other cetaceans—hence the name, Killer Whale. Their primary source of food is salmon, which is why you’ll see them closer to shore in the summer months, when the salmon run close to shore, and farther out in fall as they follow the salmon.

When feeding, they cooperate to corral tight balls of baitfish as well as pursue large prey, easily gripped by interlocking, sharply pointed teeth in both upper and lower jaws. They eat about 5 percent of their bodyweight daily (which can be up to 12,000 pounds).

Visit Friday Harbor's Whale Museum and learn more about Orca whales.

Adopt a whale

Because no two fins or patches are exactly the same due to nicks, scars and a variance in shapes and patterns, researchers use them to identify individual orcas.

For instance, Ruffles was named for his large wavy dorsal fin and Granny because she’s the oldest female in the three pods (both were featured in the “Free Willy” movies). Comet can often be seen streaking just below the water’s surface and Raggedy was named for the tattered condition of her dorsal fin. You can adopt a whale through the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island go to www.whale-museum.org for adoption and other information).

Fast facts Orca

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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