Whap! The resounding smack of an orca’s pectoral fin against the water signals a playful hello. A deep huff, accompanied by a cloud of steamy vapor rises from the water as a gray whale surfaces to breathe. An explosive “whoosh” elicits “oohs” and “ahhs” as a mighty humpback bursts from the ocean, twirls and completes a mesmerizing breach.

Meet the “real locals.”

There are few places in the world where one can find gray, minke, humpback as well as transient and Southern Resident orcas all within reach on a Seattle whale watching trip. For those new to the area, visitors to town or locals looking for a fun new (or repeat) adventure, let us introduce you to these remarkable mammals through our ultimate guide to Seattle whale watching season.

Gray Whales

Best Time to View:  March – May

Like clockwork, the arrival of the gray whales in the waters off of Washington signals the arrival of spring in the Pacific Northwest. True long-haul travelers, gray whales have one of the farthest migrations of any animals on the planet. These ultra-marathoners travel up to 12,000 miles round trip on their annual journey from the waters off Mexico’s Pacific Coast to the Bering and Chucki Seas near Alaska.

Clipper Naturalist, Justine Buckmaster, states: “The gray whales of Puget Sound are called the ‘Sounders.’ They are the same 10 or so gray whales that return to this area almost every year. The males return every year, while the females usually visit only every other year. When the females have their calves with them on their migration to the Bering Sea, they skip Puget Sound.”

A gray whale peeks out of the water to get a look at it's surroundings.

The best time for gray whale watching is in March through May, when they pit stop in our waters to fuel up for the rest of their journey. Scientists believe gray whales started visiting our waters when food became scarce. They then kept returning after discovering dense beds of tasty ghost shrimp at the south end of Camano and Whidbey Islands near Seattle.

Buckmaster notes the reason why females don’t return to Puget Sound waters with their babies may be due to the risky feeding strategy the whales use to get ghost shrimp. She says,

“Ghost shrimp are found very close to the shore, so gray whales will get right up to the beach during high tide when the water is at least 10 feet deep- just deep enough to submerge a gray whale. They then turn over onto their side, suck up a large mouthful of mud and silt from the sea floor and filter it out their baleen. This activity would be very dangerous for a baby, so the females don’t bring their babies into Puget Sound.”

One of the easiest ways to spot these massive creatures (they can reach up to 50-feet in length and weigh up to 35 tons – the equivalent of five adult male African elephants!) is to look for a tall, heart-shaped misty jet of vapor of the whale’s blow when they surface.

Additionally, keep an eye out for their huge, 10-foot-wide tails when they start a dive. Similar to a fingerprint, the clusters of barnacles speckling their tails (as well as their head and bodies) vary in shape, size and color and are unique to each animal.

Transient Orcas
Best Time to View:  May – Oct

Transient orcas are another common spring visitor to the Salish Sea, as they hunt other marine mammals that feed on the herring in our waters during the months of May to October. Buckmaster clarifies the whales’ food source is “mainly seals, sea lions, porpoises and occasionally larger whale species. The transients are doing quite well, with more than 200 of them roaming up and down the coast between Alaska and California in small pods, made up of one to seven whales. Occasionally they come into Puget Sound as well as to feed on the abundant seal population.”

While the transients cruise through our waters around the same time of year as Southern Resident orcas, there is no known socializing, interaction or breeding between transient and resident orcas. In fact, resident and transient orcas seem to actively avoid each other.

A transient orca in pursuit of a fish.

One of the easiest ways to distinguish transient orcas from the Southern resident community is by differences in their markings. Buckmaster mentions, “Typically the dorsal fins on a transient whale are very sharp and pointed, very triangular. Whereas on a resident orca, the fins are more curved in the back.” Buckmaster also notes the differences between the orcas’ saddle patches, the grayish-white marks found behind an orca’s dorsal fin.

She says, “On a transient orca, the saddle patch is all one solid color, and the shape is quite a bit wider than those on a resident orca. Likewise, on a transient, the whale’s white eye patches slope downward slightly, and on a resident they are more horizontal and parallel with the white chin patch on their lower jaw.”

When watching for these magnificent mammals, scan the horizon for black dorsal fins slicing through the water, a telltale sign of an approaching whale.

Southern Resident Orcas
Best Time to View:  May – Oct

Unlike transient orcas, our beloved Southern Resident orcas have a smaller and more defined traveling range, spending four to seven months of the year in the Salish Sea. The whales travel in family pods, which are made of three distinct groups, known as J, K and L pods. Family-oriented and social, the orcas interact, socialize and breed with other resident pods, but won’t change from one pod to another.

Buckmaster states, “There are currently just 76 Southern Resident killer whales left among the three family pods, which is down from 150-200 or so orcas that were counted just a few decades ago. They have been protected under the endangered species act since 2005.”

An adult resident orca needs 100-300 pounds of food a day (which is about 40 salmon a day), so they spend a considerable time hunting. Buckmaster says,

“Summer through early fall is a great time to view resident orcas on our Seattle to San Juan Island whale watching day trip as they follow Chinook salmon to the rivers where the fish spawn.” In the fall and winter months, they leave our protected waters, sometimes for months, swimming out to sea to follow the salmon.”

J pod cruises through the waters near Victoria, BC.

With their striking white and back markings and towering dorsal fins (they grow as high as six feet on male orcas, and up two feet on female orcas), there is a mystical quality to these iconic species that have occupied our waters for hundreds of years.

Fascinating and impressive creatures by any measure, orcas display a variety of behaviors that serve different purposes. Ranging from tactical to playful, these awe-inspiring performances are signature moves to watch for when searching for orcas in the Salish Sea:

  • Spyhopping: When an orca pokes its head above the water, presumably to get a peek at what is happening above the water’s surface.
  • Breaching: When an orca may leaps out of the water head first and crash down on its back or side, making a loud splash, which is known as a breach and thought to be a form of communication and play between whales.
  • Cartwheeling: An upside-down breach! A whale will throw its flukes and lower body out of the water from one side to the other while keeping its head submerged. Like breaching, this likely a form of play.
  • Tail Lobbing: when a whale slaps its pectoral fins or tail on the surface of the water repeatedly, which is thought to be a form of communication between whales or a means of stunning prey.

 

Humpbacks
Best Time to View:  May – Oct

Once an extremely rare sight in the Salish Sea, humpback whales are becoming frequent visitors to the Pacific Northwest. This “humpback comeback” is due largely to a rebounding North Pacific whale population, which now numbers more than 21,000.

The population had dwindled to about 1,600 before whale hunting was banned in 1966. Local naturalists also speculate their food source in their normal feeding areas further north is not enough to sustain the existing population.

Clipper Naturalist, Stephanie Raymond, notes, “We experienced a massive resurgence of humpback activity in the Northwest unlike any other in recent history, with the group feeding in the Salish Sea in 2016 being the largest seen in more than 100 years.”

A humpback bursts out of the water.

Migratory by nature, humpbacks spend their summers along the Pacific Northwest coast and return to winter breeding areas in either Hawaii or off the Central American coast. Buckmaster says, “Generally speaking, May to June through early fall is the best time to see humpbacks as they return to the Salish Sea to feed on spawning herring.”

Weighing in at 40 tons and reaching up to 50-feet in length, humpbacks are the biggest species of whale in the Salish Sea and can be recognized by their small crescent-shaped dorsal fin perched atop their humped back.

If these gigantic mammals’ statistics alone aren’t impressive enough, their special moves are certainly incredible. These acrobatic performers are often popping out of the water for mighty breaches, twisting and whirling through the air and have also been seen teaming up with other humpbacks to bubble net feed.

Minke Whales
Best Time to View:  May – Oct

Growing up to 30-feet-long and weighing between five to ten tons, minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales. Ironically, Raymond explains the minke whales were named after a Norwegian whaler who was known for overestimating the size of the whales he caught. Whalers took to calling the smaller whales “minke’s whales” as a joke, and the name stuck.

While minkes may be diminutive, their vocals pack a power punch. One of the loudest whales in the ocean, the eerie, low-frequency pulses (imagine the sound of a Star Wars lightsaber) and boings produced by minkes can reach up to 152 decibels (as loud as a jet plane taking off).

A mother and baby minke whale glide along together.

Primarily solo travelers, but occasionally seen in groups of up to three whales, minke spend most of their time pursuing their food. The whales favor cooler climates in the summer, making May through early fall the best time to find minkes in Washington waters before they migrate to warmer waters during the winter.

To spot a minke, watch for their broad, black back and small dorsal fin. If you’re still not sure you are looking at a minke, their white underside, white patches on both front flippers and a pale chevron behind their heads are clear giveaways.

Although minkes are not acrobatic as orcas, you may be lucky and catch one of their rare water shows. They have been known to breach, usually three times in a row, and make dolphin-esque dive in the water.

With spring bringing the Emerald City back to life, there are more opportunities than ever to embrace our sunnier weather and hop on an epic whale watching trip to catch sight of these amazing marine mammals. Whether it is your first time on the water or one of many, there is nothing more magical than seeing whales jump, splash and play in our local waters. You can rest assured you’ll get a whale of a view!

 

Book your whale watching trip now

 

Photo Blocks: Clipper Naturalist Justine Buckmaster