I received the text message six months back.
"Have you ever seen those YouTube videos where people are kayaking or paddle boarding and suddenly they're surrounded by killer whales? Let's take a trip and do it!"
I think my response was a mixture of whale emojis and exclamation points.
Natalie Wall's enthusiasm bit me immediately. We roped Victoria Wright into our scheme, and the three of us began planning what ultimately was the trip of a lifetime: one week full of kayaking, whale watching, hiking and camping through Washington's San Juan Islands (where orcas are most commonly spotted) and Alaska's Kenai Peninusla.
As our adventure really was, for lack of a better term, epic... I will be splitting the story into two features, starting with our time in Washington. Look for my Alaska story in a few days.
San Juan Islands
Unfortunately we didn't actually kayak amidst a pod of orcas (but not for lack of trying!). However, aboard Clipper Vacations we did see an orca calf with the rest of L Pod, the first time it had been spotted since the beginning of winter (the research boats excitedly bopped up and down in the water, trailing the pod everywhere they went). Many other adventures ensued, including gobbling down melting ice cream cones while riding candy-colored beach cruisers all over San Juan Island's Friday Harbor, commandeering a small rowboat from a nice captain, and sea kayaking over 10 miles through the Puget Sound. We did discover many a bald eagle, harbor seals, sea lions, and a ton of jelly fish along the way.
We were fortunate enough to welcome a few amazing brand partners on board the trip to sponsor the adventure. Our HUGE thanks goes out to Alaska Airlines for providing airfare and helping us during what could have been a very sticky situation when we couldn't find one of Victoria's bags in Seward. Also on board was Bota Box, which uses 100% recyclable packaging and is by far the best boxed wine I've ever tasted. They make it easy to bring wine on your adventures (amazing, right?); our Bota made it in our tents, our backpacks, and even on our kayaks. My favorite was the Nighthawk Black; super yummy. Teva hooked us up with the perfect footwear for our adventure, and Clipper Vacations was responsible for the entirety of our San Juan Islands adventure and also allowed us to actually see a pod of orcas via their whale watching experience. Thank you so much to our brand partners for helping make the week so extraordinary!
Meeting The Southern Residents
The "upper left" portion of Washington is filled with countless bays, inlets, lakes, and islands. It's a gorgeous mess of a place, and even when I lived in Seattle I never fully got a handle on where everything sat geographically. I hadn't made it to the San Juan Islands before this trip, which I'm grateful for, as it made the experience that much more special. After having seen a couple of viral YouTube videos documenting people experiencing orcas in the wild, I was under the naïve yet hopeful impression that pods of killer whales like to swim and breach near casual kayakers. In reality, the three pods of orcas that live in the area (known as the "Southern Residents") are tracked, numbered, named and can be easily recognized by those who know what to look for. While on board the Clipper, Naturalist guide Justine Buckmaster, who has been guiding tours for six years and has "always loved whales" explained it as this:
"Each pod has a name, and each whale within the pod has a unique name. All whales are photographed yearly by the Center for Whale Research. Each whale is recognizable by a unique dorsal fin and saddle patch, like a fingerprint."
Orcas are extremely community driven. Each pod has their own language and communicate frequently, also interacting with other pods and "transient whales" which are exactly how they sound... orcas that roam about freely and feed on seals as opposed to the typical salmon diet. Natalie, Victoria and myself were also delighted to hear that orca pods are matriarchal — they're led by females. The matriarch of the entire Southern Resident orca population, an old dear known as "Granny" is estimated to be over 100 years old (a typical orca lifespan in the wild is around 50-60 years old).
There is much more known about killer whales today than even a decade ago, and in turn, public opinion is changing as well. It is now widely accepted that orcas are not meant for captivity as they are extremely social creatures that rely extensively on the social acceptance they receive from their pod; and if taken from their family and put into captivity their behavior will be less predictable. The last orca in captivity is Lolita who currently resides in Miami's Seaquarium. It is believed that she was taken from L Pod, the same pod we saw off the coast of Victoria onboard the Clipper.
Our half-week in San Juan Island's Friday Harbor and full immersion into all things orca was the perfect entry into what was a jaw-dropping experience in Alaska. Stay tuned for the second half of the story, coming soon!