San Juan spring is prime time to see orca pods

It’s again time to watch whales in the San Juan Islands.

May and June are the two months with the most number of days of orca sightings in Haro Strait off the west side of San Juan Island. J, K and L pods are the resident orcas of this area and, while they don’t migrate to some other area for the winter, they are more widely dispersed then. Now they are feeding on salmon in the Haro Strait and showing off for onlookers at Lime Kiln Point State Park.

J pod in particular can be thought of as our local pod. While K and L pods have been seen as far away as Monterey, Calif., in the winter, J pod stays closer to home.

Whale researchers and observers were happy to see that Granny, age 97, and Ruffles, at age 57 the oldest of all the males in the three pods, were both still with the pod when the group swam by Lime Kiln Lighthouse recently.

Sadly, J-43, born last fall, is missing from the pod and must not have made it through the winter. This baby was the son of Samish and would have been named by the Samish Indian Nation in a ceremony this fall. The orca Samish’s previous offspring are named Hy’shqa, meaning “thank you” in the Coast Salish language; and Suttles, after the noted anthropologist Dr. Wayne Suttles.

J-42, born last summer, has been seen with the pod and will be named in a contest this summer. This month, members of The Whale Museum will be asked to submit names, and the top four to six names will be selected by staff, based on criteria (such as staying with the matriline, pertaining to black and white, pertaining to whales, being suitable for these majestic animals).

Then, in August and through Labor Day, voting by the general public takes place at the Seattle Aquarium, the Whale Museum Exhibit Hall, the San Juan County Fair and online at The Whale Museum Web site. The thousands of votes are counted and announcement of the winning name is made in September.

In fall 2007, students with the Beam Reach Marine Science and Sustainability School had an exciting encounter with three orcas from J pod. Students on the “Gato Verde,” a research vessel powered by electric motors to cut down on noise, heard what is believed to be the first call and response between two orcas. Oreo, a female, was swimming parallel to the boat along with her calf, Cookie, and Cookie’s older brother, Doublestuf.

Cookie broke off from the group and started swimming toward the boat. The 40-meter long array of hydrophones attached to the boat picked up calls between the mother and her calf until Cookie swam back toward Oreo and Doublestuf.

Of course, researchers have no idea what the two orcas were saying, but it certainly sounded like a conversation. Come visit The Whale Museum to see and listen to the recordings of this call and response event. Thanks to the Beam Reach students and their hydrophones, we can eavesdrop on nature.

Now that it’s May, take some time to visit our local whales by coming out to Lime Kiln Point. Maybe you’ll see Granny, or Ruffles with his distinctive wavy dorsal fin. And remember to bring a lunch or be willing to wait a while because, as our visitors are beginning to learn, no one can give you an answer to the question, “What time do the whales swim by?”

— Clare Kelm is a member of WSU Beach Watchers San Juan County.