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Debriefing with Dolphins

I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye, to mull over a summer past, until I saw it from the air. A great dark mass bulging from the water, narrated by the strong white noise of a purring engine and spinning propeller. I gesticulated wildly at the two other passengers, thrusting my hand down, far below us, somewhere between Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula. The mass thrust up again, this time I saw the trail of mist spreading out behind as it sunk below the surface. This was a whale, a very big whale.

During the summer of 2015, I worked as whale watching Naturalist and a Kayak Guide in the San Juan Islands. However, I wouldn’t call myself an expert at either activity because I respect the patina that time burnishes on your person, and to call myself an expert at whale identification or at kayaking despite having been paid for it, seems to be a disservice to those things I am truly expert at. Birding is one I can solidly stand by. Artistic expression is another. But equally so I’m unwilling to say I’m an expert writer or photographer just yet. Of course, expert or not, this was a formative experience.

The whale below us was probably a Humpback Whale (Megatera novaeangliea), but it’s identity wasn’t important. Simply seeing this massive animal, a sleek form breaking the gleaming surface was an unmatched sight. From the air I managed two more glimpses of it amidst the contrast of clouds and sunshine. The float plane was bound for Seattle, taking me home after spending two days as “talent” for a short video that my summer employer was creating. We followed the sound South, away from my old home, as it narrowed between strait, inlet, and bay.

I felt an immense sense of place in that plane. The land below me was familiar. This was home. Even if I’d never lived on the Olympic Peninsula, which floated by on my right, nor sped the length of Admiralty Inlet shimmering below. Even if I wasn’t born here, nor had roots beyond growing up in Seattle. Globalization is upon us, so if you feel a pull to a landscape, stick to it and cherish it, because few of us are from anywhere anymore. This thought struck me as the dark and light of land and water played past as we jostled South. I was finally saying goodbye to the San Juans Islands as my home for the past two years.


Southern Resident, L92 with Orcas Island and Mt Baker in the Background.

Just as I don’t think I can rightly say I’m a whale expert, nor a kayaking pro, I’d be lying if I said I was intimately familiar with the San Juans despite my sojourn there. I know a few islands fairly well, but they still hold mystery and surprise along their shores and in among their mossy hills. There are some 400 islands and rocks in the chain and while I know their placement and could be tossed into them blindly and still find my baring, I’ve only set foot on a scant few (only 11 by my count). Embarrassingly I’ve even neglected visiting one of the largest, Lopez, in my entire life living in the Pacific Northwest. I left with a feeling of familiarity, but as always, a thirst to know more. There are more peculiarities of tidelines and high ridges to pick across, and more creatures hopping between islands and slipping between them to observe.

There were many things to say goodbye to when leaving the San Juans. The most special thing was living in a place where nature wasn’t a half-forgotten subtlety while plodding over concrete, but the entire tapestry of daily existence. You are so enveloped in trees and rock and water that you almost begin to take it for granted. Thank the gods I left before I did, because that would have been a sad day indeed. Of course there were friends and farms to leave behind, but it’s not as if I won’t see them again. None of the things that are there are gone forever, but I still miss waking up to the sounds of birdlife outside my window, watching the islands slide by as I took the ferry to work, and even spying a distant puff of exhalation as my boat of eager tourists unknowingly approached a group of black and whites.


A member of L Pod surfaces way closer than expected near the boat.

Orcas, killer whales, grampus, blackfish, Orcinus orca, or whatever you wish to call them (as cosmopolitan species they have many names) are the apex predator of the Salish Sea. They are also largely what bring people flocking to the San Juan Islands, and why I was able to employ myself doing “fun” jobs for the past two summers there. No matter the fact that kayaking in the San Juans is fun regardless of seeing them, nor that a summer cruise between the stunning layers of spinning water, jutting islands, and looming mountain ranges, people want their whales.

What always surprises me however, in being a naturalist and a guide, is how little people knew coming on board or getting into a kayak. I don’t suggest I know all before I visit a place, but I do due diligence in arriving somewhat informed about the thing I wish to see. These charismatic animals are well worth seeing, taking the breath away regardless of your knowledge of them, but if I spent over $100 on a trip to see them I’d like to come with a baseline of appreciation beyond the outward appearance.

As it goes, killer whales are pretty fascinating species: wide ranging, highly intelligent, long lived, extremely social, masterful predators and yet still full of much mystery. They inspire and draw amazing scientists to obscure corners of the world to study them. They are the banner for many an animal rights campaign. Their image alone is stamped in the public mind as a creature of great worth, never to be forgotten.

On the average day on the water, I talked endlessly of these dolphins, because indeed they are the largest member of the dolphin family. This statement is a frustrating one to a scientist interpreting to the public, especially when it’s a key part of your introductory speech to a crowd of excited participants there to see “whales.” Saying “All dolphins are whales, but not all whales are dolphins,” doesn’t generally aid the concept, but I’ll let you, the insightful, intelligent reader, figure out what that means. There is of course more to these dolphins.


A member of J Pod breaches in Rosario Strait with Mt. Baker in the background.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), as they are recognized federally, are an endangered population that spend most of their summer in the greater San Juan Islands. This in particular is the reason there is a flourishing whale watching industry (around $100 million a year); this population specializes in salmon, focusing mostly on the largest species of Pacific Salmon, Chinook, which pass through the San Juans en route to spawning grounds up the Fraser River in annual regularity between May and September. This specificity is great for viewing but is problematic for the species.

Salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest are much diminished from historic numbers, with four runs of Chinook Salmon between the Sacramento River and The Fraser classified as Endangered as well. This ultimately means not as much food for the SRKWs. When you are large (bulls weighing in excess of 14000 lbs) and spend all your life in very cold water (averaging 47 degrees Fahrenheit in the San Juans), you eat a lot of salmon. An adult male may eat 400lbs of salmon in a day (a fact I often used to demonstrate why we can’t effectively keep orcas in captivity).

Many people want to blame salmon numbers on over-fishing, which is a factor, but this is a very simplistic view. This fall I’ve been working as a naturalist teaching kids about Pacific Salmon and the ultimate take away is that the life of a salmon is hard enough without us tossing our challenges in the mix. If you ignore the fact that in natural and ideal conditions, out of 3-5,000 eggs laid only around 3 salmon survive to spawning adults; it’s no wonder pollution, dams, estuary disturbances, and the complexities of ocean acidification have caused runs to plummet. Salmon conservationists and orca conservationists have only recently started to work together, and their current largest push is breaching the Snake River Dam in Idaho. (Ultimately I think salmon are a far more compelling species to propel conservation efforts than orcas).


J Pod near Victoria Harbor, Vancouver Island.

Things aren’t easy for the Southern Residents either of course and the struggles aren’t just lack of prey. There’s strong evidence that the chemicals from our waste water have major effects on their health and fecundity. Blubber that keeps a killer whale insulated also is excellent at storing chemicals, which vent in high concentrations when animals aren’t eating enough and use up fat storage between good meals. Imagine all that birth control’s ability to alter fertility in females and the potential of heavy metals to sterilize males. Vancouver and Seattle are growing, the San Juans are becoming an even more popular boating destination, and whale watching thrives, thus sound pollution from boat motors (quite evident while listening to Lime Kiln State Park’s Hydrophone), has become a serious problem too. For animals that derive much of their social well-being and predatorial skill from the aural world it’s not just unpleasant for them, it’s detrimental. To top this all off, in 1970, a huge group of individuals were snatched from the wild (dead and alive) on Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove and sold to what became a billion dollar industry of marine parks centered on orcas (Thankfully as I write this, Sea World is phasing out these programs). Today, we have a small population fragmented directly and indirectly by anthropogenic means.

This is a heavy weight to hold while you are trying to show people a good time and you can’t dump it all over your guests immediately. Some already come to the boat with grudges against Sea World and human greed, but others are often willfully ignorant or don’t feel the same. There isn’t a naturalist aboard a whale watching boat that doesn’t wish we could shout at the top of our lungs about how messed up things are, but we remain measured because this is not our sole role on board.


Calf, J51 pokes up near Active Pass in the Gulf Islands, Canada.

Besides the fact, it’s hard to feel grim when you’ve seen the resident population increase. When I started, there had not been a baby since 2012, but by this October in 2015 six calves were bounding about their mothers’ flanks joyously. There are few things more fun to watch than a playful baby orca, the embodiment of happiness.


J Pod off of Discovery Island, Canada.

One of the things that few people know about the Southern Residents (and their cousin’s the Northern Residents), is that they are strongly matriarchal. So strong, with long lived females like J1 or Granny, (who scientists believe is 104), that we can track family trees quite readily through observations. Regardless of gender, a SRKW stays with its mother as long as it’s alive. By using their life histories and the fact that saddle patches (conveniently positioned on their back behind the dorsal fine) are uniquely pigmented per individual, we know all the 82 individuals and can organize them into three pods which divided into smaller groups we call matrilines (the nuclear family of the resident world). J Pod currently has 29 individuals, K Pod 19, and L Pod 35. (We started studying resident whales in the Eastern Pacific near Northern British Columbia and started there with A Pod and went on alphabetically).


Male Steller’s sea lions on Whale Rocks near Cattle Pass. At upwards of 2500 pounds, males are still on the menu for transients but probably less so than smaller females.

Besides the SRKWs, there’s another ecotype in the San Juans, the transients. When we say ecotype we mean a genetically distinct population, but not a sometimes interbreeding, slightly differently looking sub-species (I am not here to discuss species theory). In this case, transients appear one a b-line for speciation, and are doing so despite the fact that they may share the same waters as resident populations. Worldwide we distinguish between transients and resident populations as a baseline describing behavior, revolving around food preference and site fidelity. Southern Residents come back practically every summer to the San Juans and surround waters to hunt salmon. Transients in the Eastern Pacific could show a certain degree of fidelity to an area, as several groups of them in the San Juans do. However, they prefer to wander further and could show from Southern California to Alaska, which probably relates to their food preference: marine mammals. This has ultimately led to a divergence that’s driven not by geography but instead dictated by culture that’s centered on prey choice.


Harbor porpoise lungs floating on the Haro Strait.

While I loved getting to know the individuals of the Southern Residents, their hunting style is lackluster in comparison to transients. Because they hunt seals, sea lions, porpoise, and even small whales, they tend to travel widely, live in smaller groups, be very unpredictable in movement, and put on amazing displays while hunting. I may have frequently told guests I wanted to see carnage when coming on scene with transients. And sometimes you do, like when I saw a bull breach with a seal in its mouth and slam it back into the water. Or the time I watched Harbor Porpoise lungs floating by on the surface as blood bloomed in the water column below us.




A younger transient porpoises near the Cactus Islands.


Transients sometimes play with birds. This pigeon guillemot was repeatedly swallowed and dragged underwater. For whatever reason it didn’t fly away but instead screamed at the orcas bothering it for over five minutes.


A transient surfaces in New Channel with Spieden Island behind it.

I’ve left out a third ecotype in the Pacific Norhtwest, offshores, because we hardly see them. They may be the fish eating ancestors of Residents in our region but some evidence points to them specializing in sharks (along with other fish). The fact that we know almost nothing about them means very little in the grand scheme of things). In comparison to residents and transients, some of the most heavily studied wild marine mammals in the world, we still have much to learn and no doubt many surprises. And of course, that’s what makes every encounter so exciting.

I can’t possibly provide a synopsis of all there is to know about killer whales and all the questions yet unanswered. For being just one species, there’s a ton of great research on them. There’s also a lot of misinformation and discrepancies in popular accounts. What I’ve said above may not correlate with some information you’ll find online.

As I write about this sitting in Seattle, I’ve largely forgotten about the blustery, wet, bumpy, grumpy days on the water. I’ve forgotten about the bad tips on incredible days (and the spectacular tips on the worst days). The questions that left me searching for a hole in the head of the querier. The almost willful ignorance of others who were self-described “dorcas”. The questions of “can we get closer,” and “when do they breach,” and “are we there yet?” Ok, I really haven’t, but I’ve also not forgotten the many thoughtful people and what should really shine through: which was educating the public, learning a lot myself, and having a damn good time geeking out on nature in the process.


A humpback whale shows its fluke pigmentation as it dives. This is primarily how we identify individual humpbacks.


Dall’s porpoise, ones of the fastest and charismatic marine mammals in the San Juans.

I had days where we saw almost nothing. I had days where I stopped counting breaches at 54. I had days where we were surprised by orcas surfacing right next to us when they were last over 300 yards away. I had days where Dall’s porpoise were bow riding our boat to the delight of all involved. I had days where we were stuck, unable to motor away because transients were busy killing stuff all around us. I had days were I looked down at the murky image of an orca crossing beneath our boat. I had days where I could see the follicles around the blow hole of a young humbpack whale. I had days where I saw thousands of seabirds spread out over the open water and realized how little I really knew about their lives despite being a birder. I had days where the sun was shining, the birds were noisy, and everyone was smiling. I had days I hope to repeat in the future.

Being on a whale watching boat is challenging for so many reasons, but ultimately it’s because every naturalist cares so much about what they are doing and about the whales. We got upset when people willfully break the rules and get too close. We got frustrated by the amount of boats that chase around these spectacular animals just trying to survive and realizing in some ways, we were just one of those boats. We got frustrated by how immensely complicated it is to protect and help a group of wild orcas; it being so very conceited of us to think we can control everything, yet that we need to control much to lessen the problems we’ve created. We got frustrated by the people who wanted a sea world show and didn’t care about anything beyond breaches and babies.

Having spent five days a week for four months doing this job, I’d be lying if I said I was thirsty to do it again. I miss the water and the whales and the islands. The changing conditions of the water, learning to crew a boat, and the differences of each day made it truly exciting. Ultimately I’ve lengthened my chain of knowledge about Pacific Northwest natural history. I now have a much stronger desire to see more marine mammals in other parts of the world. And I have an unhealthy desire to own a boat and travel the intricacies of coastline between Seattle and Anchorage.


Coming down into Lake Union.

Back in Seattle, I’m applying for graduate school and trying to get back into the swing of writing and taking photos (that aren’t of orcas), consistently. Flying back, after a final few days working on the water with the whales was a perfect debrief and final goodbye to a formative couple years. So I spent it mesmerized by the play of the water below, just as I would have on a boat, thinking about the scales of our world and giving thanks to the San Juans, my previous employer, my friends and family new and old, and of course to the whales.


  1. David

    Good on you Brendan! It’s always a joy to tap back into your writing, photography and spirited natural history and conservation biology commentary. Your time as a naturalist focusing on cetaceans of the NW and mine with wolves of the GYE have so many parallels – we’ll catch up soon buddy. Cheers and, again, well done on another piece of quality writing.

  2. Quality writing indeed. I very much enjoyed the details of your experiences. I hope to one day see Orca with my own eyes in the wild. Thank you for sharing your stories!

    • Brendan McGarry

      Glad you enjoyed it. They’re incredible animals, I was very, very lucky to get to spend time watching them.

  3. Pingback: A 2015 Photographic Year in Review | Wingtrip

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