What you may or may not know about me is that I’ve wanted to see Orcas in the wild since I was about 8 years old when I first saw the movie “Free Willy”. Sure I’ve seen them at Sea World quite a few times, but I knew there would be nothing like seeing them in their natural habitat.
For years I’ve always researched the best location to go, and have known for a long time that the San Juan Islands was certainly one the best places to see them, but it just never seemed to be the right time. So recently I decided that now is the perfect time, but how was I going to do it? Of course I’d want to take photos of them as that’s one of my first passions and having the two collide would be a dream come true.
On the morning of the first day, I was all sorts of antsy. I was nervous and yet super excited at the same time. What I realized after we had all met the night before was that 6 out of 8 of us there had already been on a trip with Aaron, most of which had been on multiple. That in itself spoke volumes and made me realize that I absolutely made the right decision. However, what I feared was everyone else was far more prepared with the right equipment to get great shots. I had the right equipment to shoot a wedding, not wildlife.
What I didn’t realize, was that the small plane we were taking from Seattle to San Juan Island was a Seaplane. Which for those of you who don’t know what they are, they’re exactly as they sound; they take oﬀ and land on the water. Sure, I’ve been in small planes before, heck I’ve even jumped out of one, but I’ve never landed or taken oﬀ on water.
Now was the time I’ve been waiting for, our first boat ride out to see the Orcas! Our private charter was going to be with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching on J2. Captain Alan and our Naturalist, Maddy, both eagerly met us at the dock ready to start our journey. We drove about an hour until we had our first Orca sighting. During the ride, Maddy was great at educating us on how they can identify the whales and where we were on the map. She also made sure to keep an eye out all around the boat to see if there were any whales nearby. She would help to let Alan know, because in the area they have to ensure they are following certain precautions when whales are around. Some precautions they have to take are keeping the boat 200 meters away, putting out a flag to alert other boaters that there are whales within the area, and if a whale comes closer, they had to turn oﬀ the engine.
Just ahead, boats were surrounding an area and a whale flags out! This is it, the moment I had been waiting for, my very first Orca sighting! At that moment, I was like a kid in a candy store, and I’m pretty sure I even had a few tears in my eyes from pure and utter excitement. The backdrop was incredible with Mt. Baker in the background, we honestly couldn’t have asked for a more perfect first sighting.
We discussed the diﬃculty of photographing Orcas in our very first meeting, so I made sure to constantly be ready with my camera to my eye and both eyes open, for any quick and important behaviors. This proved to work when I caught my very first spy hop on camera, and it was incredible!
On our first day, we traveled to Boundary Pass, which is a strait that runs between the border of Washington State and the Canadian boarder by British Columbia. We also got to see such a wide variety of behaviors from the whales. We saw them hunting for prey close to shore, spy-hopping, some tail slaps, a breach (when the whale jumps out of the water), and we even believe we saw a newborn baby (only a day old) traveling with a pod! Honestly watching the baby travel with its Mom might just be the cutest thing.
When it’s swimming, it pops up just a bit more so you can always see it’s head peaking out of the water. We even got a peak of ‘Lady Washington’ which is named Washington State’s Tall Ship Ambassador, it’s even been in a variety of films including Pirates of The Caribbean. Heading back to Friday Harbor, we got to witness such a beautiful sunset, and if you know me at all, you know that sunsets are my absolute favorite!
Then came the second day with a trip to see foxes and then my favorite part of the day, back to the Orcas! This time we traveled all the way to Vancouver Island close to Victoria, Canada. It was a bit of a bumpy ride through some parts, but well worth it! We found some Orcas in an inlet and for the most part, there were not many boats around which was really nice because sometimes there can be a crowd. We practiced photographing backlit blows which are far harder than one would imagine trying to get the exposure just right. While we only saw one type on our trip, “Biggs Orca,” more commonly known as the “Transients,” it really would have been even more amazing to see the Southern Residents which are famous in Friday Harbor. More recently though, they haven’t been in the area as much due to lack of their food source which is Salmon, primarily Chinook. The Southern Residents consist of three diﬀerent pods, the J Pod, K Pod, and L Pod. One of the most well known was “Granny” who was the leader of the pod, also known as “J2” which our boat was named after. She lived to be approximately 105 and passed away around December of 2016. The museum had a large focus on really helping the Southern Residents and educating us on what we can do to help since they’re considered endangered. My favorite part was being able to see how they identify the whales, which is by their dorsal fin and saddle patches which are the gray areas right behind the dorsal fin, those are similar to a human’s fingerprint.
On to our third trip on the water! The great part about going on the water in the afternoon is other boats within the area have spotted the whales and alert us of where we can travel to see them. So as soon as we arrived, Captain Alan gave us some options, there were two diﬀerent spots in which they had spotted some humpbacks, and there was one spot up north about an hour and a half away by Nanaimo, British Columbia that they had spotted some Orcas. Aaron didn’t hesitate a bit and said, “let’s go to the Orcas!”
It’s been an ongoing joke on the trip that we wanted to find the “Popcorn” whales, which if you imagine how popcorn is made, you can understand the logic. Just as popcorn “pops,” “popcorn whales” is when you see them jumping out of the water, popping up and splashing all around. So we decided after lunch that we would pick up some popcorn as good luck on the boat!
The great thing about having Alan as your captain is he is incredibly patient and knows just where to navigate the boat in order to get fantastic shots! So important when you’re navigating a boat with a bunch of photographers. When we arrived in the area, there were tons of boats, and while everyone wants to see the Orcas, you also don’t want to overwhelm them. So we moved by the crowd of boats and waited up ahead to see which direction the whales would swim before we decided where to go. As you would have it, they came right towards us andswam into a little canal up ahead. We followed them and they began to hunt what we believed to be a porpoise. This is where you could say they “popcorned” a little. They began to spy-hop and celebrate their kill, even having an incredible breach! While I missed it, being too busy taking a photo of a beautiful spy-hop, my friend Michelle got a fantastic shot of it!
As we left this incredible pod, we decided to make our way a little closer to the city of Vancouver in more open water. And sure enough, we came across two more pods! One was hunting a porpoise and it was intense to watch how they circle their prey and have another mini celebration at the end. At the end of their hunt, we saw some tail slaps, one of the whales swimming backward while it almost looked as if the baby was pushing the mom, and a double spy-hop with the Mom and the baby – that was my favorite! But overall, because we had a fantastic day of seeing tons of behaviors from the whales, we decided on the way home it was only right to open up that popcorn to celebrate! During the long ride back, I really took in all of the scenery as Maddy told us stories of all the islands that surround us, it was all just so beautiful. This whole trip we really lucked out with the fantastic weather we had and got to end it with another stunning sunset.
Overall, this trip was even better than I could have envisioned. We were so incredibly lucky to have Alan as our Captain, ensuring that our experience with the Orcas was as natural as possible and always helping us to get the best shots. And also to have Maddy as our Naturalist, educating us on all things wildlife and helping to answer every question that we all had (me especially). If you ever plan to go on a trip here (or any wildlife trip), be sure to travel with Aaron’s Tours, I promise you will not be disappointed. This trip never would have been as incredible as it was without his knowledge of the area and guidance throughout the entire trip.
This post was adapted from a blog, read the original here