This summer, I had the time of my life on a whale-watching boat trip to see orcas around San Juan Island. The orcas I saw are known as Southern Residents — a sub-group or maybe even sub-species of killer whale (the other name by which orcas go). Much to my chagrin, I later discovered.that the presence of the boats can harm this endangered population — not just from collisions as you might guess, but from air and sound pollution, as well as other factors.
Altogether, there are 80 to 90 Southern Residents, distributed among three pods, or extended family groups, known as J Pod, K Pod and L Pod. Each whale has distinctive markings by which it can be recognized. Scientists have used these markings to identify and name the individuals. They have also drawn up genealogical charts showing who is related to whom.
When whale sightings occur, naturalists are able to say which animals they are — whether J1 (born 1951) or J2 (born 1911) and so on. Many of these animals also have English names.
You can imagine what if feels like to return from a whale-watching ride in awe from seeing “Mike” breach, only to learn that your boat may have put Mike’s very health and safety at risk.
Does this mean you should give up the idea of ever whale-watching for orcas in the Pacific Northwest? Not at all! Just don’t take a boat to do it. There are excellent locations for watching whales from land along the Washington and Oregon shores, including Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island.
Read Orca Watching, my October 2009 This Green Life column to learn more. You may also enjoy In the Bay of Whales, a kiss-and-tell story about gray whales at Laguna San Ignacio in Baja, where, by the way, stricter regulations of whale-watching boats exist to protect the whales.