San Juan Island Kayak Tour Witnesses Orca Whale Greeting Ceremony

Many big events in the small world of San Juan Island whale watching took place this week. And our San Juan Islands kayak tours were there to witness the best of it!

First, a run-down of some biological and scientific notes on orca whales from this week:

  • We have now confirmed that all three of our resident (salmon-eating) orca whales are back to their normal spring through fall pattern of concentrating their fishing efforts along the west sides of San Juan Island, Henry Island and Stuart Island in Haro Strait. You can see the primary killer whale feeding zone described above by clicking on our San Juan Islands kayak tour maps and see how our kayaking adventures will give you the best chance of an encounter.
  • The last of the resident orca whale pods to return this spring, K-pod, are confirmed to have a five month-old calf that brings their family up to 20 members. The baby orca has been designated K-43 by whale biologists at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Juan Island. This is the third calf born by this mother whale, K-12, who is believed to be 38 years old.
  • The unofficial population of the southern resident community of killer whales in Washington’s Salish Sea is now 90 whales as the orca baby boom continues. If water temperatures can stay low in the North Pacific Ocean, we anticipate a surge in Chinook salmon numbers. Periods of exceptional killer whale fertility seem to be linked to colder water cycles that generate greater ocean productivity.

And now for the fun stuff! We had some great killer whale watching on our San Juan Islands kayak tours this week and here are some highlights:

  • Our one day San Juan Island kayak trip last Sunday can count themselves as extremely lucky! They were perfectly positioned by their guide Dan to witness an orca whale “greeting ceremony” on the west side of San Juan Island. These rare events are observed only a couple of times each year! Several other day trips this week had some enjoyable orca whale watching, but nothing as dramatic as a greeting ceremony. Our guide Dan described it as his best whale watching experience ever!
  • The “Holy Grail” of orca whale watching is to witness a “greeting ceremony”, a special behavior that occurs when the family pods encounter each other after a long period of traveling and hunting alone. A greeting ceremony begins with each pod forming a side by side line up on the surface of the water with the two lines facing each other. The two families of whales call back and forth while slowly moving closer and closer to one another until they eventually meet. At that moment all the precision and restraint breaks down into an explosion of play, breaching, slapping, socializing and other fun stuff that we call an “intermingling”. This period of excitement can last up to a few hours before the whales settle down for a group hunt and then usually travel together for at least a few days.
  • Dan and Evan co-led a custom kayaking trip for a prep school and were able to find the killer whales on three separate occasions during the three-day kayak tour. We are sure that the students and their parents who shared this experience will have fond memories that last a lifetime.
  • Andrew led a regular three day San Juan Islands kayak tour and had two separate encounters with orca whales for his guests to enjoy. Of course, like the other tours mentioned, they saw lots of bald eagles, ospreys, seals, porpoises, otters and other lovely creatures.
  • Matt led his guests for a 50 mile circuit around the northwestern-most of the San Juan Islands on a five-day kayak tour and was able to find the orca whales one evening by hiking from their campsite to an abandoned light house station to view the sunset. As they observed the gorgeous scenery from the top of a sea cliff, they were rewarded by the stunning sight of an orca whale pod swimming past the lighthouse.

Summer weather and orca whale watching are a great combination on a San Juan Islands kayaking vacation!

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