Orca Whale photographed off the coast of Seattle in the neighborhood of Ballard. Photo by Darrell Kirk 2011
Story by Darrell Kirk. Copyright 2011
Travelers to the north Pacific coast can be forgiven for comparing it to the African Serengeti in the abundance and splendor of its viewable wildlife. Whales—especially orcas—are a very common sight along the north Pacific coast; any traveler who puts forth the effort is almost certain to see a whale. Whale cruises, private boats, and ferries all reliably provide tourists with a chance to see whales. Whale watching season lasts from March through early October, but tourists may see dolphins, sea lions, otters, and other marine mammals any time of the year.
Visitors are most likely to see a whale on a whale cruise. Since whales generally frequent certain areas, tour operators need only take visitors to the appropriate spot and wait for the whales to come to the surface for air. Whale tours normally last for three to five hours.
Orcas—sometimes called killer whales—are especially popular with tourists. To live, orcas must follow their prey, and therefore can be found in areas with fish, sea lions, seals, and even other whales, which orcas have been known to hunt. This makes the orca a wonderful whale to try and see, because visitors are often treated to a view of their prey. Orcas are very active swimmers and visitors frequently see them dive and leap from the water. Adorable baby orcas are a common sight.
Whale watchers are also very likely to see humpback whales. Humpback whales sometimes hunt alone but can also be seen in spectacular groups of up to fifteen. They swim very actively and often slap the water, breach completely, or blow water high into the air—sometimes dousing tourists. This can be a spectacular, unforgettable sight, as humpback whales can be 16 or more meters in length.
Whale watchers can also hope to see grey whales, humpback whales and right whales. Each whale is spectacular in its own right. Grey whales, for example, are covered in barnacles and move along the water slowly and regally, as if they were royalty. Tourists may see several species of whale on a single whale watching cruise.
However, whale watchers should not count on seen a Minke whale. The Minke whale is shaped like a torpedo and is a rare but exhilarating sight. At about the same size as a killer whale, the Minke whale is a very fast swimmer at more than 20 mph and can remain underwater for long lengths of time. Whale watchers are likeliest to spot these long, sleek whales animals when they come up to feed on fish. Because they are difficult to spot, Minke whales are little understood, and even those scientists that watch whales professionally have yet to decipher their migratory patterns.
If you decide to whale watch along the north Pacific coast, a paid whale tour is the surest way to see a whale. However, whale cruises are not the only way to see whales. British Columbia and Washington State operate an extensive network of ferries that offer visitors the chance watch whales while traveling to destinations such as Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, and the San Juan Islands. Whale watchers may also rent a kayak or other small vessel and see whales, though it is best to exercise caution in approaching the animals. Finally, many spots along the wild and rugged coastline of the North Pacific offer excellent whale watching.
Whales are among the most magnificent animals in the world, and a highlight of any trip to the north Pacific coastline.