The Orca, also known as the “killer whale”, is the largest species of the oceanic dolphin family (Family Delphinidae). This toothed predator is one of the most widely distributed sea mammals on earth, and can be found in all of the world’s oceans. Fortunately, Outdoor Odysseys offers eco-friendly kayak tours in one of the world’s best orca whale watching areas, close to shore off San Juan Island and the surrounding waters of the San Juan Archipelago. This rich marine habitat attracts a local clan of orcas that are among the most studied – and most threatened – marine mammals.
Orcas are categorized into three genetically different types: resident (fish-eating, larger family groups), transient (mammal-eating, smaller long-ranging groups), and offshore (open-water) orcas. Resident orca populations, such as those that frequent the waters off the San Juan Islands and the whales we are able to see on our kayak tours are organized into stable, highly social matrilineal family groups called “pods”. Offspring tend to live with their mothers for their entire lives. Some females, including the matriarch “Granny” (J-2), may live for over 90 years in one social group. Within the inland waters of Washington and Canada, there are three resident orca family groups – labeled alphabetically as J, K, and L pods- that frequent our kayak routes in the San Juan Islands. In total, the single clan composed three Southern Resident pods have less than 90 individuals at present time.
dutch oven kayak cookingWhale watchers can view these pods by land or kayaking in the San Juan Archipelago as they feed on their primary food source, Chinook salmon, during the summer months. Don’t expect the whales to stick around, however – they usually move on from our area around San Juan Island after September in pursuit of the salmon they depend on for survival. (For seasonal kayak tour dates and availability in the San Juan Islands, check out our Dates and Prices page.) The J, K, and L pods move frequently throughout Puget Sound and the southern Canadian waters. These Southern Residents tend to return regularly to the west side of San Juan Island to take advantage of the strong current and optimal fishing found in Haro Strait, which lies between the bodies of Vancouver Island and San Juan Island.
Orcas are distinctive from other sea creatures due to their characteristic black-and-white patterning, stocky bodies, and large dorsal fins. See an example of orca coloration and dorsal fin structure in our Photo Gallery. Each orca can be uniquely identified from any other member of its species by variations in its dorsal fin, saddle patch pattern, and individual behavior. In fact, whale watchers and kayakers in the San Juan Islands can easily distinguish one resident pod from another by identifying just one or two whales within each passing family group.
Mating occurs between members of different pods when two or more Southern Resident families unite to form “superpods” of up to 150 animals. Orca females have on average one calf every five years, or approximately five offspring in one lifetime. The gestation period varies between 15-18 months, and females may calve (give birth) at any time during the year. Within most studied orca populations, newborn mortality is high – at least half die before reaching their first year from predation, poor nutrition, toxic exposure, and surface impacts.
The sophisticated social behavior, communal hunting techniques, and vocalizations of resident orca pods lead many researchers to believe that these whales express their own form of culture. Each family member participates in socializing, teaching, and looking after young calves. Orcas are very tactile, inquisitive, and social animals, and have often been witnessed playing or checking out the terrestrial scene and human activities (i.e. land-based whale watchers, kayakers, and boaters) when not consuming a steady diet of fish. Southern Resident orca pods create their own unique “accents” and “dialects”, differentiating one group from another and creating distinct, complex “languages” that vary across the globe. This is a unique characteristic found in only one other mammal species: humans. Some researchers are able to accurately identify one local pod from another simply by listening to their sonar squeaks and clicks through an underwater hydrophone. Whether hunting salmon or seals, orcas exhibit highly effective group coordination and strategy due to their unique ability to use a linguistic form of communication.
As of 2005, the Southern Resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest have been listed as an endangered species. Toxic and acoustic pollution, the decline of salmon populations, habitat loss, danger from vessel traffic, and the gradual worldwide warming of ocean temperatures threaten the J, K, and L pods in the San Juan Islands. As such, it is our responsibility to treat them with as much respect as we have admiration for these beautiful creatures. Our goal here in the San Juans as whale enthusiasts, avid kayakers, and environmentalists is to “share the road” with our orca friends and educate fellow kayakers and whale watchers about the current plight of a very special species.
We strive to provide a fantastic kayak experience and consider orca whales to be the “icing” on an already amazing cake of adventure and possibility. As outdoor enthusiasts who are used to changing conditions and the spontaneity of wildlife behavior, we encourage all potential whale watchers to adopt a similar philosophy. The Southern Residents favor the west side of San Juan Island, where we launch the majority of our kayak tours; therefore, we usually have a good chance of seeing them on any of our trips during the summer months. Please remember that these endangered animals have a large territory to cover, a limited food supply, and have suffered a huge decline in their population over the last century. We try not to give them too much flak if they don’t show up on cue.