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Fortunately the Northwest orca population is reasonably healthy, so chances are high that you will get a chance to see some of these unusual whales. Of all the marine mammals that you are apt to encounter in the waters around Alaska, orcas with their dramatic tall scimitar-like dorsal fin – in a big male they might be six feet high – are the easiest to recognize. But don’t confuse them with the much much smaller dall porpoise, which although are also black with white markings, have only a very short dorsal fin on their back.  A large orca might be 20 feet long, and they usually travel in extended family groups called pods. While other whales like humpbacks usually abandon Northwest waters each fall to head off to Hawaii for the winter – like many other Alaskans – orcas usually are seen throughout the winter, especially in lower British Columbia and Puget Sound.Orcas_turn Pt

Orcas eat salmon, but are especially fond of other marine mammals like seals, sea lions and occasionally a small or wounded larger whale like a humpback. They can put on dramatic shows when they are feeding. Puget Sound ferry commuters are often treated to orca displays when they travel back and forth across the sound by ferry. Once I squeezed in next to this crowd all along one side of the big ferries wondering what the fuss was all about. Then I saw it: a big orca was chowing down on a pretty good sized seal, maybe a 300 pounder, flipping the carcass eight or ten feet in the air between bites. Very impressive, but not a sight for the squeamish!

Another time my wife and I were exploring the very remote and wild Lord Islands, on the Alaska-Canada border. We were standing quietly in the trees watching a mother seal and her two pups on a sandy beach. Totally without warning a big orca came out of the surf on the beach, snatched up one of the seal pups and wriggled back into the water with the next wave!!

JohnstoneJohnstone Strait – Mile 218 – 264 – is probably the best known place in North America to see orcas. The good months are July and August, when the orcas are chowing down on migrating salmon as well as seals which also eat the salmon. British Columbia orcas played a huge part in the worldwide change in human perception and understanding of orcas.

In June of 1965, Bill Lechkobit, a B.C. salmon fisherman caught a big bull orca in his net, near Namu, Mile 375, and decided to try to keep it alive and sell it. Seattle Aquarium owner Ted Griffin was very aware of the success that the Victoria Aquarium had with its captive orca, Moby Doll, and jumped at the opportunity to get one. He rushed up to Namu with a crew, built a floating underwater cage or pen, hired a tug, crossed his fingers and headed down to Seattle. For the first day or so, an obviously distressed female orca with two young or calves, followed Namu’s cage, squeaking and chirping in communication according to one watcher.

Griffin was very lucky, getting Namu safely to Seattle and installing him in a big tank in his aquarium with big viewing ports for the paying customers. As Moby Doll had in Victoria, Namu thrilled the customers, who quickly had to revise their perception of what an orca was.
Instead of an angry killer, audiences found a creature that was obviously intelligent, gentle, and even funny. Ted Griffin spent huge amounts of time with his new capture, teaching it tricks, and even putting on a neoprene wet suit and getting into the water with him. National Geographic ran a 28 page story on Griffin and Namu that went a long ways to dispel the myths many had about orcas. But just 11 months later Namu died from an infection. Griffin, devastated, realized what a money maker Namu had been for his struggling business and set out to capture another one.

OrcasUnfortunately all the publicity about Namu and Moby Dall created sort of a wild west gold rush mentality about capturing orcas, and Griffin captured a whole school of orcas on the east side of Whitbey Island, and offered them for sale.  Tragically, in the commotion, several of the captured orcas accidentally died. This was not good publicity for folks who wanted to make a buck capturing orcas. Eventually the Washington state legislature became concerned and involved after an even more spectacular orca capture a few years later. This one occurred in an inlet so close to the actual capitol building in Olympia, Washington, that legislators could hear the helicopters!

This was in the era of Earth Day and a swiftly growing awareness of the environment and the natural world, and shortly thereafter Washington, followed by British Columbia banned the capture of orcas. Unfortunately in the decade between Namu’s capture and the bans, around 100 orcas were killed or taken from the Puget Sound-lower British Columbia orca population.

Killer whale totemOrca awareness probably reached a peak after the release of “Free Willy,’ starring an orca whose real name was Keiko. Poorly housed in a Mexican aquarium after the film, Keiko’s plight inspired a large number of supporters, and his life became an astonishing saga of high profile fund raising by schoolchildren all over the world up to millionaires like Craig McCaw,  an interim home in an custom made Oregon aquarium tank, and eventually a high profile ride in a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport to Iceland and finally to the fjord near where he had been captured some 25 years earlier. There had always been an element of worry if he could be successfully reintroduced into the wild after so long in captivity. But he was released successfully in the wild, where he survived for about 18 months before dying of pneumonia. At 27, he was old for a captive orca, but young for a wild one, many of whom live for 40 years plus.

Killer whales are also an important theme in native culture and art and frequently appear both as masks, standalone carvings like the one on the left, and as elements on totem poles.